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Published in Print: May 2, 2001, as Reports Track Student Achievement In Urban Districts

Reports Track Student Achievement In Urban Districts

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The Council of the Great City Schools has crafted a series of reports it hopes will serve as a benchmark to track future student achievement in urban districts.

The four reports released last week—which examine inner-city students' performance by race, income, and gender on Advanced Placement exams, college- entrance exams, and the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition—show a variety of urban school academic trends but offer little that is new.

For instance, the achievement gap between minority students and their white classmates in city districts mirrors the national divide. Students who take core courses outscore those who do not. And students' socioeconomic backgrounds strongly correlate with their test scores.

Still, said Michael Casserly, the council's executive director, the reports will help school systems "grind out every inch of improvement we can. ... They're like stock market indexes. Not any one indicator tells you the whole story."

The Washington-based membership organization, which represents 56 of the nation's large urban school systems, is committed to producing follow-up reports to give urban districts a clear snapshot of their students' performance.

While the council isn't trying to create a different set of norms or standards for urban districts, Mr. Casserly said that it's important for districts in large cities to be able to compare their results with school systems that have similar enrollments.

Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that advocates high academic standards for poor and minority children, said that urban districts are adopting more creative strategies to improve student learning.The council's reports, she said, signal "a renewed focus on academic achievement and a willingness to put data out there that was hidden from public view."

Assessing the Scores

Among the reports' major findings:

  • The council teamed up with Harcourt Educational Measurement, which produces the Stanford-9, to review the 1999 scores of nearly 1 million students in grades 2-11 in 16 urban districts. The report on those results, "Striving for Excellence: A Report on Stanford Achievement Test Results in the Great City Schools," shows that "normal curve equivalents" for council schools were within the national average range.
  • The College Board and the council produced "Advancing Excellence in Urban Schools: A Report on Advanced Placement Examinations in the Great City Schools," an analysis of 38,000 AP test-takers in 58 districts. Most mean AP subject-test scores for those students fell below the 3.0 needed for students to earn college credit for their Advanced Placement coursework. Students earned the highest average AP scores—3.3 out of a possible 5—in calculus. The lowest average scores were posted in physics and chemistry, both at 2.2.
  • For "Making the Grade: A Report on SAT I Results in the Nation's Urban Schools," the College Board and the council reviewed the SAT results of students in 58 districts during the 1998-99 school year. The average SAT verbal score was 460 out of a possible 800, while the average math score was 468. Nationwide, the average verbal score was 506, and the average math score was 512.
  • The council also examined its districts' scores on the ACT, the other widely used college-entrance exam. "A Decade of ACT Results in the Nation's Urban Schools 1990-1999: A Report on Urban Student Achievement and Course Taking," evaluated the test scores of about 60,000 students in 57 districts.

While the average ACT composite scores for urban districts remained unchanged over the 10-year period at 18.9 out of a possible 36, average math scores climbed from 18.6 to 19.0. Nationally, the average ACT composite scores increased from 20.6 to 21 from 1990 to 1999.

The ACT report is the sole review that details district-by- district gains. Of the districts included in the study, those that posted the greatest improvements on the ACT composite scores over the decade were school systems in New York City, Pittsburgh, Mesa, Ariz., St. Louis, and Anchorage, Alaska.

"All of these reports are frustrating in some sense because it is still difficult to tell with any certainty what reforms have been the most successful," Mr. Casserly said. "That's why we still have a lot of work to do."

He said a fifth council report that tracks urban districts' trends on state assessments will give school leaders more data to consider. The report, which includes data by city, subject, and grade, is scheduled to be released later this month.

Vol. 20, Issue 33, Page 13

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