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Urban Districts Report Steady Academic Gains

By Catherine Gewertz — April 05, 2005 4 min read
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The academic performance of students in urban districts continued to rise last year, a report issued last week shows.

More than half the 4th graders in the districts examined, it says, scored at or above the “proficient” level on state-mandated reading and mathematics tests for the first time since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law three years ago.

The study, “Beating the Odds V,” shows city districts making steady progress in the two subjects in the past few years, while narrowing performance gaps between students of various racial and ethnic groups. It is the fifth annual such analysis performed by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for 65 of the nation’s largest urban districts.

The report, “Beating the Odds V,” is online from the Council of the Great City Schools. ()

On tests administered in 2004, seven in 10 cities improved math scores in all grades tested, up from just under half in 2001. In reading, four in 10 cities boosted scores in all grades, up from about one third in 2001. In 15 percent to 20 percent of the districts, scores in all grades tested rose more quickly than they did statewide.

Fourth graders improved more than 8th graders. Fifty-five percent of 4th graders in the districts studied met the “proficient” mark in math in 2004, and 51 percent did so in reading. Among 8th graders, 44 percent reached proficiency in math, and 41 percent did so in reading. Those figures reflect gains of 3 to 11 percentage points since 2002.

More than half of the 4th and 8th grades also reduced achievement gaps in math and reading among Latino, African-American, and white students.

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Chart: Trends in Achievement

Michael D. Casserly, the council’s executive director, said the numbers offer testimony that urban educators are more focused than ever on improving their schools, and that big-city schoolchildren can achieve at high levels, “given the same opportunities” as students elsewhere.

But he noted that only a few urban districts are performing at their states’ averages, a sign that they “still have a long way to go.”

Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that focuses on raising the achievement of low-income students, said the report shows suburban educators have “a lot to learn” from their urban counterparts.

“Listen closely to what these educators are saying,” he said in an e-mail. “They are not whining about how difficult it is to educate children from low-income families and children of color. Instead, they maintain a relentless focus on making sure that their schools work for all students.”

Role of Federal Law

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued a statement saying that the study confirms that the No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed in January 2002, is “the right law at the right time for America’s children.”

At a press briefing here, Mr. Casserly said the law deserves some, but not all, of the credit for rising urban school performance. Increased funding under the law has helped schools make progress, he said, but “the lion’s share” of the credit goes to urban educators, who are “working harder and smarter” than ever before.

Big-city districts are increasingly adopting practices identified several years ago by the council as common to districts where student achievement is improving, Mr. Casserly said. Those include: setting measurable goals; establishing accountability at all levels of the system; breaking down data by student subgroups and using the information to improve instruction; and establishing coherent, centrally managed curricula.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia schools, which saw some of the most significant test-score gains among the districts studied, said the No Child Left Behind law has helped his and other districts produce better results by focusing them on instruction and holding them accountable for improving it.

Mr. Vallas credited a host of changes for driving his district’s improvement: a new “managed instruction” program; intensive teacher training; mandatory after-school or summer school for struggling students; reading and math coaches in the schools; longer daily periods for studying math, reading, and science; and the use of assessments every six to 10 weeks to adjust instruction. “There’s not a lot new under the sun,” Mr. Vallas told reporters at the briefing. “It’s a matter of recognizing what works and bringing it to scale.”

Deborah Jewell-Sherman, the superintendent of the Richmond, Va., schools, which also saw strong gains in the council’s study, said the federal law’s focus on subgroups of students, such as those of different races or income levels, has driven the district to adopt practices to ensure they succeed. Those practices include providing mentors for teachers, embedding assessments in daily instruction, and helping struggling students after school, in the evenings, and on Saturdays.

Mr. Casserly said his organization is pushing to secure urban districts more flexibility in the way the No Child Left Behind Act is put into practice.

Council officials have spoken with Secretary Spellings, for example, about allowing districts that have been deemed “in need of improvement” by their states to serve as tutoring providers under the federal law, if they can show they are making good progress. As the law’s regulations are now written, districts that fall short of their states’ academic targets may not use federal money to run their own tutoring programs.

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