Urban Minority Students Performing On Par With Suburban Counterparts

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 17, 2003 7 min read
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Although African-American and Hispanic students in urban districts lag well behind whites on national assessments, the minority youths generally are performing on par with their racial and ethnic counterparts in suburban and rural areas, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress released Dec. 17 in Washington.

Read a summary of the “National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2003 Trial Urban District Assessments of Reading and Mathematics,” from NAEP. The NAEP homepage also posts the full results.

“The perception that students in urban schools do less well than others and have poor academic performance is not supported by the 2003 NAEP results,” said Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “Like student groups in other districts, some urban students show above-average performance and some below-average, but no pattern of underperformance is suggested.”

The 2003 NAEP in mathematics and reading in grades 4 and 8 was administered to representative samples of students nationally, for each state, and on a trial basis to students in nine of the nation’s largest and most racially and ethnically diverse districts last spring. The districts— Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego—participated in the study on a voluntary basis. Data from the District of Columbia, which, along with each state, was required to participate in the testing program under the No Child Left Behind Act, were included for comparative purposes.

The math tests included questions on mathematical operations, measurement, geometry, statistics, and functions. The reading exams were designed to gauge students’ ability to comprehend literary and informational passages. Tests in both subjects feature multiple-choice questions and those that require short written answers.

All the urban districts except for Charlotte-Mecklenburg fell below national average scale scores on the tests in both grades. Overall, however, students from Houston, New York, and San Diego were close to the national average in reading in both grades and in math in grade 4. Boston students in both grades came within 10 points of their peers nationally in reading.

When the results were broken down by race, black and Hispanic students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Houston, and New York scored close to or above the national average for those groups in both subjects. Minority students in Boston, Cleveland, and San Diego also scored close to national averages for those groups in several categories.

“It’s often concentrated poverty and [large numbers of disadvantaged students] all in one place that could bring scores down to an inordinate degree, but apparently they did not” in this case, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “This suggests that these cities are doing something with this population of kids that is adding value over and above attainment levels than one would expect.”

The Washington-based council is organizing a blue-ribbon panel to study the results of the tests and analyze the programs and policies in the six districts where students scored near the national average. The goal is to determine those policies that help or inhibit student achievement in the subjects tested, Mr. Casserly said.

His group, which represents nearly 60 of the nation’s large-city school districts, was instrumental in getting the district-level assessment started. The first trial assessment was given in reading and writing in 2002 in six of the districts.

All but the District of Columbia showed gains over the 2002 exam. Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cleveland, and San Diego joined the study in 2003. (Students in Big-City Schools Trail Peers on NAEP Scores,” Aug. 6, 2003.)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg students turned in the best performance of the group, scoring above the national average in both subjects and for both grades. That district also saw above-average results for each subgroup of students. The North Carolina district includes surrounding suburbs, and about half the district’s 100,000 students are from minority groups. The proportion of minority students in other districts ranges from 73 percent in San Diego to 93 percent in Atlanta.

Overall Results Poor

In many of the districts, a majority of students scored below the basic performance level and, except for Charlotte, just one in five students or fewer could demonstrate proficiency in the challenging subject matter.

The three NAEP achievement levels, “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” are considered rigorous standards, but the levels have not been proved valid or reliable. Federal officials say that the levels are useful, however, in gauging what students know.

In reading, some 50 percent or more of the 4th and 8th graders in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, and Los Angeles were below the basic level, meaning they could not demonstrate even partial mastery of the fundamental knowledge and skills in the subject for their grade level. Nationally, about 24 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8th graders fell below basic on the 2003 assessment. In Charlotte, 41 percent of 4th graders and 32 percent of 8th graders were deemed proficient in the subject, significantly above the national average.

In mathematics, the picture was much the same. In all but Charlotte, about half or more of the 4th graders in each of the districts failed to reach the basic level. In Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, and Los Angeles, more than half the 8th graders fell below that level.

Minority students’ performance in some of the districts was no different from that of their minority peers around the country. Black 4th graders in Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York City, and San Diego, for example, matched or exceeded the national average results in math performance for such students, with more than half scoring at the basic level or above. Half or more of Hispanic 4th graders were at or above that level in all the districts except the District of Columbia, where fewer than 40 percent of students had done that well. In Charlotte, 80 percent of those students were at or above the basic level, and one in four showed proficiency

In reading, black and Hispanic students in those top cities neared national average achievement levels for such students in both grades.

“Hispanic and black students are far more likely to come from poor families than White or Asian students,” said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in an online chat held the day the scores were released. “NAEP data show that students from poorer families do less well than students from families that are not poor,” she said, adding that the disadvantaged status of those students contributes to their lower scores overall.

Exclusion-Rate Discrepancies

The test is intended to provide the districts with comparative data for gauging pro-gress over time. While the results can also help educators measure their students’ performance against that of their counterparts in other urban districts, comparisons between the cities should be made with caution, NAGB officials say.

While Houston and Los Angeles may have similar demographics, for example, the disparities in their scores may be deceiving. Both cities have high percentages of students identified as having disabilities or as English-language learners, but the Texas district generally excludes a larger proportion of its sample from the test, particularly in reading. At the 4th grade level, for example, 18 percent of Houston’s students were identified as having disabilities, and 33 percent were English-learners.

Because of state policies that allow those students to take tests with some accommodations—for instance, the Texas math assessment is offered in Spanish—that are not provided for the national exam, some students are also excused from the national exam. Houston excluded 24 percent of its total sample of 4th graders from taking the NAEP reading test, compared with a national average exclusion rate of 6 percent. Los Angeles, which follows California guidelines that limit exclusions, released just 6 percent of its 4th graders from taking that test. On the 8th grade reading test, Houston excluded 10 percent of its total student sample, compared with the national aver-age of 5 percent. In math, the district did not post such high exclusion rates.

“To some extent, [the difference in exclusion rates] is based on policy, but I doubt you can erase the differences [in scores] that way,” Mr. Winick said. “I would be cautious in interpreting their 4th grade reading scores” because of the exclusion disparities.

Mr. Winick, a Texan who has been active in setting up and refining his state’s as-sessment system, added, though, that Houston’s 8th grade reading scores and math scores for both grades were encouraging.

The NAEP governing board is set to address the disparities in exclusion rates and find ways to promote greater consistency among states in two meetings slated for 2004.

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