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Despite Some Progress, Math and Reading Proficiency Still Eluding Students in Urban Schools

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The nation’s cities have shown some improvement in reading and mathematics achievement, but most continue to struggle to move more children toward proficiency in those subjects, particularly minority students, according to the latest results of a special urban-district study on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“To us, it’s very encouraging because it says that our overall trends are moving in the right direction, however modest the reading scores are,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group representing 66 of the nation’s largest-city districts. “But we are cognizant of the fact that we need to accelerate [the progress].”

Fourth and 8th graders in the Austin, Texas, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., districts outperformed their peers in other urban districts and met or exceeded national averages on the 2005 NAEP in the two subjects, according to the Trial Urban District Assessment, released Dec. 1. The 4th and 8th graders in nine other urban districts scored below the national average in both subjects, but students in several of the districts showed statistically significant increases in scale scores and in the proportion of students demonstrating at least basic skills since the last time the special study was done in 2003.

The most improvement was seen on the math test, with eight districts showing higher average scores among 4th graders and four districts registering improvements for 8th graders since 2003. Reading scores in seven of the districts rose by several points—on the 500-point NAEP scale—among 4th graders in that time. Although most of those gains were not considered statistically significant, they should be seen as part of a positive trend, said Mr. Casserly, whose organization had requested the special urban study.

“If you could get 5-point gains on NAEP in reading [for any urban district], that’s substantial, even if it didn’t pass the statistical threshold,” he said. Mr. Casserly also noted that in several of the districts, many more students moved from the “below basic” level to “basic” in reading, and larger proportions of students demonstrated proficiency in math.

Many Are ‘Below Basic’

Achievement gaps between white students and their minority peers remained, and in some places were quite large. The District of Columbia, for example, showed a 76-point gap between white and black 8th graders in math. In reading, there was a 65-point difference in the average scale score for white 4th graders vs. their African-American peers in the nation’s capital. Gaps between white and Hispanic students were also large in most districts, though generally less dramatic.

Public school students in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego were all assessed under the program, with representative samples of students taking the tests last spring. The report also includes results from the District of Columbia reported earlier this fall as part of the NAEP state report, for comparison purposes.

Students in the nation’s cities rarely reach proficiency in the subjects by 8th grade. In fact, large proportions of the students cannot demonstrate even partial mastery over the subject matter, according to the report. The NAEP achievement levels—“below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced”—are based on rigorous standards. But the levels are not aligned to states’ own definitions of “proficient.”

In reading, some 60 percent or more of 4th graders and more than half of 8th graders in Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia failed to demonstrate basic understanding of the material. In most cities, however, those figures represent improvements over the 2003 results.

The urban district study allows officials and experts to make some comparisons between student performance in those cities, to track any changes, and to learn more about school-improvement practices that appear to be working and those that do not, according to Mr. Casserly.

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