Students in large urban districts made progress in reading and mathematics on a nationwide test, with their strongest gains coming in math and from low-performing youths, in keeping with recent trends.
While scores among students in large cities still lag well behind national averages, achievement rose in 4th and 8th grade math by statistically relevant margins over the past two years and among 4th graders in reading. Eighth grade scores in reading remained flat.
The scores were released today as part of the Trial Urban District Assessment, a specially collected set of test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.” Test scores for cities were reported for two previous years, 2003 and 2005.
The study produced information on urban students’ performance in two categories: a pool of those who live in “large central cities” with populations of 250,000 or more, and a separate category of students from 11 individual urban districts.
In math, large central cities saw their scores rise from 228 to 230 in 4th grade, and from 265 to 269 in 8th grade—on a 500-point scale—both statistically significant increases. In reading, the group of cities’ 4th grade scores increased from 206 to 208, also statistically relevant, but 8th grade reading marks remained flat at 250.
Individual urban districts also showed the greatest gains in math—a trend reflected in a number of national tests in recent years. Six of the 11 school systems made gains in 8th grade math from 2005 to 2007, and four improved at the 4th grade level during that time.
Performance in reading in the 11 individual districts was more stagnant—also in keeping with recent trends. Four districts improved on their 8th grade scores from 2005. Just two of the 11 districts showed gains for 4th graders in reading over the most recent two years.
Atlanta made the largest gains of any of the 11 districts: It has improved its scores in math and reading at both the 4th and 8th grade levels since 2005. The District of Columbia also raised its scores in both grades and subjects.
The other nine districts that had their scores reported individually were Austin, Texas; Boston; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston; Los Angeles; New York; and San Diego.
“The long-term trends for the cities, in general, are very good,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington advocacy group for urban districts. “[But] we know we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to accelerate the gains.”
Mr. Casserly said his organization is conducting a study of the strategies used in urban districts that have posted improvements in recent years. He suggested that the strides made by Atlanta and some other districts could be traced to a combination of improved professional development for teachers, stability in leadership positions, and school officials’ increased commitment to targeting interventions to students who need the most help.
“We’ve gotten much better at using our data and at our strategies for turning around lower-performing students,” Mr. Casserly said.
The council partnered with the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, the panel that sets policy for NAEP, in developing the urban assessment.
Students who took the urban NAEP were scored on a scale of zero to 500, and they were grouped in one of four performance categories, based on their results, in both reading and math: “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic” and “below basic.”
Mr. Casserly noted that several districts saw decreases in the proportion of students in the below-basic category and increases in those scoring at the basic and proficient levels. He said he was also pleased by the improved performance of minority students in some categories. The percentage of African-American students scoring at or above basic in 4th grade reading, he pointed out, rose from 35 percent to 41 percent from 2003 to 2007. Reading scores in large cities among Hispanic 4th graders rose from 40 percent to 44 percent over that time.
Accounting for Accommodations
As has been the case on a number of recent NAEP administrations, many of the most significant gains occurred among struggling students. For instance, the percentage of students in large city schools scoring below basic fell, and the percentage scoring at basic rose in each category except 8th grade reading, where scores remained unchanged.
“It mimics the nation,” Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of NAGB, said in an interview, referring to gains among low-achieving students. “The states, for four or five years now, have been putting an emphasis on [academically struggling] kids.”
In 4th grade math, the 50,000-student Atlanta district saw its proportion of students scoring below basic drop from 50 percent to 39 percent from 2003 to 2007. The percentage of students scoring proficient rose from 11 percent to 17 percent over that time.
The District of Columbia’s scores also rose by statistically significant margins in both reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades. But the percentage of students who were either excluded from testing or tested with accommodations also rose in the nation’s capital in some categories. For example, the percentage of Washington students categorized as either having disabilities or as English-language learners who were excluded from the 4th grade reading test doubled, from 7 percent to 14 percent, from 2005 to 2007.
The lack of consistency in the types of students that states and districts require to take part in NAEP has been a concern among testing experts, state officials, and NAGB members. They worry that discrepancies in policies skew NAEP results.
Mr. Winick acknowledged that because of the variation in exclusion and accommodation policies among urban districts, “caution should be used” in interpreting the new results, as with NAEP state test results. He noted that current NAEP policies give states broad discretion in setting exclusion and accommodation policies, making it difficult for the governing board to bring more uniformity to those standards.
The governing board has, however, tried to present the different exclusion and accommodation rates more prominently in recent years, he said. “The first obligation we have,” Mr. Winick said, “is to get all of the information out there.”