School & District Management

Test Scores Rising in City Districts, AFT Says

By Robert C. Johnston — October 25, 2000 4 min read

It’s time to stop beating up on urban school districts, a top leader of the nation’s urban teachers said here last week.

For More Information

The 12-page study, “Doing What Works: Improving Big City School Districts”, October 2000, is available from the American Federation of Teachers. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Instead, several of the largest school systems deserve credit for raising test scores and making other strides toward improving student performance, according to a report released by the American Federation of Teachers.

“We hear all the time that urban schools are failing,” Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, said at an Oct. 17 briefing on the report. “While we remain critics, we see a lot of children achieving. There has been a tremendous amount of progress.”

The report highlights 11 cities where students have made academic progress and sustained it for at least three years. Districts that do the best tend to stick with research-based strategies, the AFT found. They also have set academic standards and invested in efforts to support proven strategies, such as smaller class sizes, staff training, and curriculum improvements, said Ms. Feldman, whose 1 million-member union is heavily concentrated in big-city districts.

Mathematics and reading scores in the 106,000-student Baltimore schools, for example, rose in each of the past three years, the report says. The percentage of Baltimore 5th graders at or above the national average on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills has risen 17 points, to 34.5 percent, since 1998.

In the District of Columbia, the proportion of 6th graders at the “below basic” level on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition fell to 30 percent last spring, down 11 percentage points from last year. The report does not highlight, however, that 75 percent of 11th graders there scored below basic in math, according to district data.

Public school systems in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and Corpus Christi, Texas, were also singled out for praise.

Ms. Feldman attributed the gains, in part, to teamwork between local unions and district leaders in those cities on school improvement measures.

“When you have a real collaboration ... you can go from a system where teachers are treated like interchangeable parts, to a situation where there’s a two-way street,” she added.

Anthony S. Amato, the superintendent of schools in Hartford, joined Ms. Feldman at the briefing. He outlined how his 22,000-student district climbed from dead last on state exams to post double- digit gains in just about every category between 1999 and 2000.

The district, with the backing of its local AFT affiliate, uses strategies that stress prescriptive methods of instruction, such as the Success for All reading program. Such approaches are often criticized for stifling teacher creativity.

But Mr. Amato said they keep a “laser-beam focus” on learning and unify improvement efforts.

Some Hartford students are also in school 240 days a year—far more than the roughly 180-day average for students nationwide."More time on task means better education outcomes,” Mr. Amato declared.

Observers React

People who monitor urban schools had different reactions to the union’s report.

“I don’t know if I’d call the news rosy, but it is hopeful,” said Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, based in New York. “The vital signs are pointing in a positive direction.”

He added he would like to have seen the report place more attention on remedies such as the creation of smaller schools.

The real public-relations test for urban schools, Mr. Price said, is proving that students have the skills to perform in the real world once they’ve graduated.

“I don’t want 15-year-olds that read like 5th graders,” he said. “I want them reading like 15-year-olds. That’s where we have to get. ... That’s the tug right now.”

As if to underscore Mr. Price’s point, the Hartford Courant newspaper reported Oct. 17 that 90 percent of 136 graduates from the Hartford public schools had failed a recent exam for city police jobs. The test is at a 10th grade reading level, and city officials are now studying ways to give young adults tutoring to help them pass the exams, according to the newspaper.

Douglas D. Dewey, the executive vice president of the New York City-based Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides privately financed tuition vouchers to 40,000 students in 48 states, faulted the report’s emphasis on test scores in measuring schools’ success.

“This is a very bloodless look at what teaching and education is about,” he argued of the AFT report.

The parents of children in his program look for other qualities in schools, Mr. Dewey said, such as safety, religious values, and a personal connection.

“There is more to satisfaction in schools than slight trends in test scores,” he said. “The most common response from parents in our program is that their schools feel like a family.”


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