‘Basic’ Level Tough Going for Urban Pupils

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 06, 2005 5 min read

City school districts may be seeing some payoff from years of work to improve mathematics instruction, but similar initiatives to raise reading achievement have not led to significant gains, much like the trend seen throughout the nation, a special urban study of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress released last week indicates.

While most of the 11 districts that participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment fell below the national average on tests for 4th and 8th graders, officials and policymakers pointed to some headway in tests scores and achievement levels as promising signs that school improvement measures are beginning to show returns.

“Trial Urban District Assessment: Reading 2005" and “Trial Urban District Assessment: Mathematics 2005" are posted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The results show that urban school districts can improve achievement when there is focus over time,” said Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 58,000-student Boston district. “When we are committed to the same goals, and then follow through, we can achieve results.”

Fourth graders in Boston, in fact, showed the most progress among their peers in any district in math, with 72 percent demonstrating at least partial mastery on the test and 22 percent showing proficiency, increases of 13 percentage points and 10 percentage points, respectively, over 2003 results. Nearly 60 percent of that city’s 8th graders performed at the so-called “basic” level or better, compared with 48 percent two years ago.

Students in Austin, Texas, and North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district scored at or above the national average on both tests among 4th and 8th graders. In math, eight districts in all showed higher average scores among 4th graders and four districts registered improvements for 8th graders since 2003. Reading scores in seven of the districts rose by several points—on the 500-point NAEP scale—among 4th graders in that time.

Seeing a Positive Trend

Although most of those reading gains were not considered statistically significant, they should be seen as part of a positive trend, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group representing 66 of the nation’s largest-city districts. The council had requested the special urban study.

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Table: Missing the Mark

“If you could get 5-point gains on NAEP in reading [for any urban district], that’s substantial, even if it didn’t pass the statistical threshold,” he said. Mr. Casserly also noted that in several districts, many more students moved from the “below basic” level to basic in reading, and larger proportions of students demonstrated proficiency in math.

All districts, Mr. Casserly added, were able to move more 4th graders out of the below-basic level to higher levels of achievement in both subjects.

Wide variations, however, existed between districts, suggesting “that some urban school districts clearly do a much better job educating children than other districts,” according to a statement release by the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Students in San Diego and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, outperformed the 4th and 8th graders in their respective states overall, in both subjects. In New York City—the nation’s largest district with more than 1.1 million students—and Atlanta—the smallest of those studied with 55,000 students—significant improvements occurred among 4th graders in reading.

Achievement gaps between typically lower-scoring minority students and their higher-scoring white peers, however, remained, and were quite large in some places. The District of Columbia, for example, showed a 76-point gap between black and white 8th graders in math. In reading, there was a 65-point difference in the average scale score for African-American 4th graders vs. their white peers in the nation’s capital. Gaps between Hispanic and white students were also large in most districts, though generally less dramatic.

The proportion of white students in the districts is generally very small, leading to high margins of error for some of the results. In the District, for example, white students make up just 4 percent of the tested students.

Students in the nation’s cities rarely reach proficiency in math and reading by 8th grade. In fact, large proportions of the students cannot demonstrate even partial mastery over the subject matter, according to the report. The NAEP achievement levels—“below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced”—are based on rigorous standards. But the levels are not aligned to states’ own definitions of “proficient.”

In reading, some 60 percent or more of 4th graders and more than half of 8th graders in Atlanta, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, and Los Angeles failed to demonstrate basic understanding of the material. In math, more than 40 percent of 4th graders and more than 60 percent of 8th graders in those cities, as well as Chicago, also fell below the basic level.

Is NCLB Working?

The results, mixed as they were, drew a range of responses from experts and observers. The outcome confirms the significant problems facing the nation’s urban schools, but suggests that the attention placed on improving student achievement for their students is having an impact, according to Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust.

“In absolute terms, [the results] are very disconcerting,” he said. “The encouraging part is that most of the cities have actually improved more than the states they’re in.”

But some critics of standardized testing say the latest scores are evidence that the federal No Child Left Behind Act isn’t working.

“The whole law is structured around high-stakes testing and was sold as a civil rights and educational improvement bill,” yet there’s been little improvement on NAEP, and achievement gaps persist, said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, in Cambridge, Mass.

Public school students in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego were all assessed under the study, with representative samples of students taking the tests last spring. The study also includes results from the District of Columbia, reported earlier this fall as part of the NAEP state report, for comparison purposes. The urban study was first conducted in reading and writing in 2002 for select school districts. The mathematics study was added in 2003. The study is scheduled again for 2007 in reading, math, and writing.

A new data tool unveiled by the National Center for Education Statistics this fall allows users to analyze and compare NAEP data between districts and states and view trends in achievement over time.

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