School & District Management

Urban Students Show Reading, Math Gains On State Assessments

By Catherine Gewertz — March 31, 2004 4 min read
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Urban schoolchildren made substantial improvements on state tests between 2002 and 2003, a study released here last week reports.

An analysis of scores from state-mandated tests in 61 urban districts showed that 90 percent of the 4th grades tested improved their test scores in mathematics, and 93 percent improved in reading. The 8th grades also progressed, but not as evenly. In math, 83 percent improved their scores, but in reading, only 53 percent did.

Read the executive summary of “Beating the Odds IV,” or download the full report, from the Council of the Great City Schools . (Full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Other results showed that urban students were in some cases improving their test scores at a quicker rate than were children on average in their respective states. African-American and Hispanic youngsters were also found to be closing the gaps between their scores and those of white and Asian-American peers.

The test data suggest that a strong focus on student achievement in urban districts is beginning to pay off, said leaders of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based advocacy group that performed the analysis. They unveiled the results during their legislative conference last week.

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View the accompanying chart, “More Gains Than Declines.”

Michael D. Casserly, the group’s executive director, said urban districts have “gotten off to a pretty solid start” in meeting their states’ accountability goals as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The challenge now, he said, is to accelerate or at least sustain that progress, while focusing more attention on upper grades to improve results there.

Cause and Effect?

The report, “Beating the Odds IV,” represents the council’s fourth annual analysis of urban schools’ performance on state tests. But this year’s report is the first time the group was able to examine the results of tests given to meet the mandates of the 2-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

The law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires states to set escalating targets that schools must reach when they administer state tests to students. By 2014, all students will be expected to perform at or above the proficient level on such tests. It is up to states, though, to determine what “proficient” means, and those definitions vary widely.

Mr. Casserly credited the law with helping districts to focus on the urgent need to improve achievement, but said there is no clear correlation yet between the federal law and student achievement. He noted that many urban districts were making gains even before the law was passed.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been criticized in some education and political circles as overly rigid and insufficiently funded. Mr. Casserly, whose organization helped craft it, said it might benefit from being made more flexible and “better calibrated.” But now is not the time, he said.

“The rhetoric gets so heated, and people’s ability to think straight isn’t at its highest in an election year,” Mr. Casserly said.

Cautious Optimism

While the analysis offered encouraging news, it also showed that achievement gaps still persist, and that urban students’ test scores still lag behind national averages.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement that much work remains to be done. But he welcomed the study as an important cause for optimism.

“These findings are especially significant because research shows that it is often the students in the large city schools who need the most help and face the greatest odds,” Mr. Paige said. “Clearly, this report demonstrates that if you challenge students, they will rise to the occasion.”

Leaders of several large districts, accompanying Mr. Casserly in presenting the report, outlined some of the initiatives they believe are making a difference in their districts.

Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the San Francisco schools, said her 58,000-student district, which outperformed the California average on state tests, has been able to drive more money to schools, and to the students most in need, by streamlining the central-office budget and adopting a weighted student-funding formula.

Schools have more power over their own budgets, she said, but in return must meet 18 accountability targets.

Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, has boosted the portion of students taking algebra by 8th grade from 10 percent to 64 percent in the last few years by undertaking a major initiative to train teachers to teach that subject, said Carlos Garcia, the superintendent of the 262,000-student system.

To improve reading performance in elementary schools, the district has trained all of its teachers to be literacy specialists, he said.

Leaders of the Council of the Great City Schools have pointed out that urban systems that are improving often share certain factors, said Mr. Garcia, who is the chairman of the group’s board. Such districts concentrate on achievement, use data to guide their decisions, and often standardize their curricula to eliminate fragmentation in the instructional program.

“We’ve narrowed our focus,” Mr. Garcia said. “We’re no longer taking a shotgun approach. We’re research-based. We’re looking at what works and putting resources behind it, and it’s working.”

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