School & District Management

Test Scores Up in Urban Districts, Report Says

By Robert C. Johnston — May 30, 2001 5 min read
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Test scores in many of America’s urban school districts are inching upward at rates that often outpace those of their states as a whole, according to a report released here last week by a national advocacy group for city schools.

The 55 urban districts in the study showed more progress in mathematics than in reading on statewide tests. And while white students continue to score much higher than their black and Hispanic peers, the gap may be narrowing, concludes the analysis, which is described as one of the most comprehensive of its kind.

For More Information

Read the executive summary of “Beating the Odds,” from the Council of the Great City Schools.

“We want to make it crystal clear that urban schools want and expect results,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which compiled the report. “We believe in our kids, and we are not afraid to be held accountable.”

Memphis was the only member of the group to back out of the project, citing concerns over how its performance data were going to be interpreted by the report’s researchers.

While noting that the council’s findings were “preliminary and leavened with caution,” the report hails several encouraging results—even as per-pupil spending in city schools dropped below the national average for the first time in decades.

Math scores on state exams rose in 92 percent of the districts in half or more of all grade levels tested. Math scores rose faster in cities than they did statewide in 44 percent of the grades.

In the 22 cities for which data by race and ethnicity were available, the achievement gaps between black, Hispanic, and white students narrowed in more than half the 4th grades tested.

In reading, meanwhile, the study found that 80 percent of the participating districts had increased their scores in more than half the grades tested, and 41 percent of all grades in the city systems outpaced state gains.

Still, the gaps between racial groups often remained large. While Florida’s Miami-Dade County district cut 4 points from the black-white reading gap for elementary school students from 1998 to 2000, a 40-point gap remained in 2000.

Cautions Noted

The report does not compare the cities, because they take different state tests, and scores are reported differently. Instead, it compares district and state scores, calculates annual changes by grade level over two to seven years, depending on how long the tests have been given, and contrasts those trends.

For example, eight districts posted average math scores last year in half or more of the grades tested that were the same as or higher than their state averages. They were Albuquerque, N.M.; Broward, Hillsborough, and Orange counties in Florida; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.

Albuquerque, Hillsborough and Orange counties, and San Francisco had higher average math scores than their states in all grades tested last year.

But San Francisco was one of a few California districts to exclude students who were learning English from taking the state exam.

“San Francisco’s scores were skewed higher for several reasons, one of which was the exclusion for students who were learning English,” said Steve Rees, the editor and publisher of School Wise Press, a San Francisco-based company that provides comparative school data for parents.

In the 22 city systems with racial and ethnic breakdowns of tests results, some 68 percent of 4th grades narrowed the black-white achievement gap in reading, while 59 percent chipped away at that gap between Hispanics and whites. Reading scores tended to be lower on average than math results, and needed to be looked at more cautiously because they were not corroborated by other studies, the report notes.

Studies of trends on the ACT college-entrance exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress by the council found national gains in math achievement in city schools, Mr. Casserly said.

“We’re behind national and state averages,” he added. “Still, the math gains are significant and real.”

Four percent of the city districts saw all grade levels improve faster than the state rate in math, while the proportion in reading was 6 percent.

Meanwhile, the city districts that raised reading and math scores in every grade tested included Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Boston; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Fresno, Calif.; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Seattle; and St. Paul, Minn.

‘Stay the Course’

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system was one of the stars of the report. The 105,000-student district raised reading and math scores in grades 3-8 between 1997 and 2000, while making strides in closing achievement gaps between minority and white students.

Eric J. Smith, the district’s superintendent, said at a May 22 press briefing here that the largest gains came after the first year that the tests were given—which is not unusual, as students become accustomed to exams. Still, he pointed out, gains have also risen each subsequent year.

More important, perhaps, is that the report shows comparable improvements in the numbers of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students taking Advanced Placement classes and other, more rigorous academic offerings .

“We saw a big tick the first year,” Mr. Smith said. “I’d say this exact phenomenon is why districts need to stay the course on accountability so there are no false reads.”

Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who also appeared at the press conference, said: “We have pockets of excellence. But pockets of excellence won’t get the job done.”

The Houston district, where Mr. Paige was superintendent before coming to Washington, was also cited for rising scores. The education secretary touted President Bush’s plan to require annual testing for all students in grades 3-8 as a way to bolster performance in more schools.

Traits that seem to propel urban systems forward, the report says, include setting fewer and clearer goals, establishing high academic standards, stabilizing leadership, improving teacher training, and using data to set incentives and consequences for performance.

“The recommendations are right on the money,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates high academic standards for poor and minority students. “It’s a good report, and we’re delighted they are putting the numbers out there.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Test Scores Up in Urban Districts, Report Says

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