NAEP Evaluates Urban Districts’ Performance

By Michelle Galley — January 07, 2004 5 min read
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A precedent-setting study of how students in some of the nation’s largest urban districts perform in mathematics and reading when compared with the nation, and groups similar to themselves, shows some unexpected results.

One district in particular outperformed the nation on three of four measures of achievement, according to the federal study, leading some to wonder what accounts for its success.

The results of the Trial Urban District Assessment are available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The district, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, scored higher than the eight other school systems in the Trial Urban District Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results on the subject-area tests were released last month. NAEP reading and mathematics tests were given to national and state representative samples, as well as those in the select urban districts, in the 4th and 8th grades last spring. The results from the national and state tests were released in November.

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View the accompanying chart, “How the City Systems Stack Up.”

And, somewhat surprisingly to some observers, African-American and Hispanic students in most of the urban districts studied earned scores on a par with those of minority students in the national sample. For example, African- American students in five districts—Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Houston, New York City, and San Diego—scored the same as, or higher than, the national average for black students on the 4th grade reading and math tests.

“The perception that students in urban schools do less well than others and have poor academic performance is not supported by the 2003 NAEP results,” said Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

But others don’t see such a rosy picture.

“I don’t see how you can read these results as anything but grim,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. In 1988, Mr. Finn was appointed by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to be the first chairman of the governing board.

In fact, every urban district in the study—other than Charlotte—scored below the national average on both the reading and the math tests in both grades.

This past year marked the second time that the federally sponsored NAEP, often called “the nation’s report card,” was given to representative samples of students in urban districts, under a voluntary program. (“Urban Minority Students Performing on Par With Suburban Counterparts,” Dec. 17, 2003.)

Public school students in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego were all assessed under the program. The report, released Dec. 17 by the National Assessment Governing Board, also included results from the District of Columbia for comparison purposes.

Charlotte’s Differences

Even though Charlotte-Mecklenburg outperformed the other urban systems, officials there were quick to point out that the 112,000-student district differs from the others in the study.

The district spans not only the urban area of Charlotte, N.C., but also Mecklenburg County, parts of which are suburban and rural. Nearly half of the district’s student population is from minority groups. In the other districts, the percentage of minority students ranged from 73 percent in San Diego to 93 percent in Atlanta.

“We are different from other cities,” said Susan Agruso, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional accountability.

The district’s students performed especially well on the assessment. For example, 64 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 4th graders performed at or above the “basic” level on the reading test. Nationally, 62 percent of 4th graders performed at that level. The other districts’ 4th grade scores ranged from 31 percent reading at or above basic in the District of Columbia to 53 percent of students performing at that level in New York City.

School officials in Charlotte said they have made a concerted effort to improve student achievement. One approach the district has taken is to establish a program that provides uniform services to every school, Ms. Agruso said. For example, she said, every elementary school uses the same textbooks.

That move “allows people in the district to concentrate on how to teach using that one single text,” Ms. Agruso said, adding that it also makes professional- development efforts more consistent because every teacher uses the same materials.

In addition, the district has a “differentiated funding” program that funnels more dollars to establish smaller classes in schools that have challenges such as large numbers of students from poor families, high percentages of inexperienced teachers, or large numbers of students who are learning English.

Meaningful Comparisons

The Charlotte district did not choose to take part in the NAEP urban study in order to compare itself against other urban districts, Ms. Agruso said. Rather, “we wanted to have a high-quality and challenging measure to see how we are performing on a national scale,” she said.

When school leaders in Los Angeles debated about whether to participate in the assessment, some had concerns about the stress the additional testing would place on students. In the end, though, the officials decided that having the outside measure of their district’s achievement was important enough to take part.

“Regardless of how we performed, we felt the information we garnered from this would be helpful and useful for us,” said Esther Wong, the assistant superintendent for planning, assessment, and research for the 750,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Students in Los Angeles scored well below the national average on all of the tests.

Beverly L. Hall, the superintendent of the 51,000-student Atlanta schools, was one of the first urban district leaders to volunteer for the test. “One of the things we are conscious of is that it is important that we have our students’ growth and progress validated by instruments that are respected nationally,” Ms. Hall said.

Comparing students in urban districts with students who live in similar environments is important, she added. “These environments are challenging,” Ms. Hall said.

The ability to make those comparisons was one of the main reasons the Trial Urban District Assessment was developed, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents 60 urban districts and was instrumental in establishing the TUDA.

“We wanted a mechanism to gauge our progress and evaluate our reforms in ways that the current state-by-state testing system does not allow,” he said at the press conference held last month to release the results.

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