As educators look for evidence of what works and what doesn’t in teaching reading to struggling students, it may be tempting to draw comparisons between the 11 big-city districts that took part in the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But given their vast differences in demographics and instructional approaches, and their mostly incremental improvements in scores over the past few years, the data provide little insight, observers say, into which strategies are paying off.
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In North Carolina’s 120,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, where schools have been teaching a highly structured commercial reading program for fiveyears, 4th and 8th graders scored above the national average on the tests, as they did two years ago.
In Los Angeles, that same reading program helped the district improve overall scores by a few points since 2002. But the 747,000-student district, with a much larger proportion of English-language learners, still trails the national average by some 20 points, and scores fell slightly for Hispanic and black students there. Houston, with a similar approach to reading, saw slight improvement overall.
But New York City, the nation’s largest district with 1.1 million students, and Atlanta, the smallest to participate in the NAEP study with 51,000 students, stood alone in charting significantly higher scores, suggesting the districts’ less-structured and more holistic approaches are having an effect. In those cities, more students moved from the “below basic” performance level to “basic” at the 4th grade level.
Such a broader approach, however, did not help Chicago’s students to improve their scores overall. The Windy City’s 4th and 8th graders registered no significant improvement since the test was first administered in 2002.
“The data are not easily interpretable,” G. Michael Pressley, a reading researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said in an e-mail. In general, “what works in the big cities is what works everywhere: intensive instruction more driven by the higher-order (e.g., comprehension, composition) than the lower-order skills, although instruction balanced to provide both the higher- and lower-order skills.”
The results, released last month, have drawn mixed reactions.
Many of the districts saw gains greater than those made statewide on NAEP, though most of the gains were not considered statistically significant and the students in all but two of the cities scored below the national average. And after directing unprecedented resources toward reading instruction in the early grades, officials were highlighting the positive, amid admittedly limited improvement.
In Chicago, for example, officials celebrated promising results for Hispanic 8th graders, who scored above the national average in reading and mathematics, while downplaying overall low scores. And district officials in Los Angeles and Houston said that a bump of a few points for 4th graders over the 2003 reading results, though not statistically significant, gave them greater confidence in the structured reading approaches they’ve instituted over the past several years, particularly given that schools there are serving large proportions of English-learners.
But critics lamented that the scores continued to stagnate and the achievement gaps between minority and white students persisted despite concentrated efforts to improve reading instruction.
“I’m surprised that the nation is not outraged by the lack of progress,” said Sheila Ford, a recently retired public school principal in the District of Columbia and a vice chairwoman of the board that sets policy for NAEP. “But I’m excited about some opportunities for growth. … In New York City, where they’ve been concentrating on strategies for reading comprehension, practicing reading, and explicit instruction on the reading-comprehension skills, they’ve elevated the achievement of children.”
New York City has tried to integrate a mix of those “higher-order” and “lower-order” strategies, including skills-based lessons, daily literature study, and writing activities, despite harsh criticism that the district should undertake a more stringent approach to building basic skills. The city’s 4th graders gained 7 points since 2002, and came within a few points of the national average.
Atlanta 4th graders improved 6 points in that span. A variety of instructional approaches are used in the city’s public schools, primarily integrating literature and a number of commercial textbooks.