School & District Management

Ohio Urban Districts Outpace State Test Gains

By Karla Scoon Reid — December 07, 2004 3 min read
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Students attending schools in Ohio’s largest cities made gains in mathematics and reading that outpaced the state average over the past five years, according to a recent analysis.

School district leaders cited targeted, high-quality professional development, the realignment of curricula to state standards, a greater emphasis on test-score analysis, and extended learning opportunities as some of the factors bolstering student achievement.

Still, they acknowledged that students enrolled in city schools continue to lag well behind their classmates in the state as a whole academically. But the advocacy group for urban school districts that conducted the analysis of state test scores believes the improvements are worth noting, especially since the districts enroll a high percentage of students from poor families and students with disabilities.

“It’s not evidence that we won the race, but it’s evidence that we’re running the race faster,” said William Wendling, the executive director of the Cleveland-based Ohio 8 Coalition, which released the review last month.

The coalition is made up of the superintendents and the teachers’ union presidents from Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.

Moving Ahead

The coalition compared state test scores for 4th and 6th graders from the baseline year of 1998-99 to 2003-04.

In 4th grade reading, seven of the eight districts bested the statewide gain of 12 percentage points over the period studied, with Youngstown improving by 19 percentage points and Cleveland posting an 18-percentage-point gain.

In math, 4th graders’ scores statewide jumped 15 percentage points. Students in seven of the eight coalition cities exceeded that mark, with the scores of Canton, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Youngstown increasing by more than 20 percentage points.

Students in 6th grade showed similar gains, with half the city districts achieving larger gains on reading assessments than the statewide gain of 12.5 percentage points. In 6th grade math, five urban districts outpaced the state gain of 14 percentage points; Cleveland posted a 26-percentage-point gain.

Gene T. Harris, the superintendent of the Columbus schools and the coalition’s co-chairwoman, said it’s vital to communicate academic successes because, in her view, many people are unaware of city school districts’ challenges.

“We believe that it’s important to tell these stories—not to pat ourselves on the back, but to tell communities that there is hope in urban school districts,” Ms. Harris said. “We are a good investment.”

Rebecca S. Lowry, the chief academic officer for the Cleveland public schools, added that the analysis helps debunk beliefs about the academic abilities of some children.

“There’s a general belief that poor and minority kids can’t do anything,” she said. “This gives credence to the fact that it’s not what you’re born with, it’s your environment.”

Careful Targeting

In Toledo, which was the only Ohio urban district to make the adequate yearly progress required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, educators touted their “strategic” approach to testing.

Eugene T.W. Sanders, the 34,000-student district’s superintendent and chief executive officer, explained that the system identifies “bubble kids,” or those students who are within a few percentage points of making the state mark, for additional tutoring.

The district also emphasizes a collaborative approach to raising test scores. A school improvement committee, made up of district administrators and representatives of teachers’ and administrators’ unions, meets monthly to identify schools needing additional assistance.

Union representatives for principals and teachers at those schools must meet with the committee to review their student-achievement efforts.

In Cleveland, Ms. Lowry, the chief academic officer, said she attributes much of the 67,000-student district’s academic gains to aligning classroom lessons and tests to the state’s standards. She added that instructional coaches model lesson plans for teachers, who also receive regular feedback about students’ academic progress.

The 62,000-student Columbus district also credits realigning its curriculum and reviewing student test scores with improving achievement.

But Ms. Harris, the superintendent, also emphasized the impact of the district’s reading initiative. Volunteers from the business community tutor kindergartners as often as four times a week.

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