Fourth and 8th graders in the country’s large cities have made progress in math over the past two years as measured by a national test, but the performance in several urban areas was stagnant—and in some cases, lagged behind that of other districts by vast margins.
Scores among students in the “large city” category, or areas with populations of 250,000 or more, rose by statistically relevant margins in both grades 4 and 8 between 2007 and 2009, continuing an upward trend from six years ago, when the NAEP urban test was first given.
“The data are clear that we are catching up with the nation,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, at an event in Washington last week, which coincided with the release of the results. His organization, located in the nation’s capital, seeks to improve urban education.
Big-city schools “set clear targets for themselves,” Mr. Casserly added, “and they held themselves accountable for the results.”
Large cities’ NAEP scores in math have risen overall since 2003, but individual district scores have largely remained stagnant.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Yet the scores among 11 individual cities that participated voluntarily in both the 2007 and 2009 exams were less impressive. And the dire scores from one new participant, Detroit, drew calls for major changes from leaders in the city and elsewhere.
Just two of the 11 districts made statistically significant gains during the past two years in grade 4: Boston and the District of Columbia. In grade 8, only Austin, Texas, and San Diego made statistically relevant gains. Scores among the other cities were flat statistically.
Urban districts face enormous socioeconomic and educational challenges compared with the nation’s schools as a whole—including high poverty, large numbers of English-language learners, and frequently, teachers with lesser qualifications. While 48 percent of 4th graders tested nationwide were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, for instance, 71 percent in the large-city category met that threshold, and the percentage in several individual districts was much higher.
Eleven urban districts took part in both the 2009 test and the 2007 exams. In addition to Austin, Boston, the District of Columbia, and San Diego, districts in Atlanta, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City had their 4th and 8th graders tested.
New Districts Join
Seven new school districts also voluntarily signed up this year: Baltimore; Detroit; Fresno, Calif.; Jefferson County, Ky. (home to Louisville); Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Milwaukee; and Philadelphia.
Despite the scrutiny that comes with the test, and low scores on it, urban districts have shown a strong interest in taking part in the trial urban NAEP, said Mr. Casserly, who has recruited them to do so.
“I still have districts standing in line,” he said in an interview. City officials want “a common metric,” he said, for comparing student performance and their education policies.
Some urban districts made impressive gains. San Diego raised its 8th grade scores by 8 points since 2007, and by 16 points since 2003. The city’s 4th grade scores remain statistically unchanged from two years ago. The District of Columbia made the largest gains of any urban system at the 4th grade level over the past two years—6 points since 2007.
The district’s 8th grade scores also would have risen by a statistically significant margin, federal officials said, if not for a test-policy change. This year, charter schools were only counted in the NAEP urban results if they also counted in the individual districts’ adequate yearly progress marks under the No Child Left Behind Act. In most districts, that change had no impact, but in the District of Columbia, 20 charter school scores ended up being excluded from the 2009 results, which pushed down the city’s results.
The chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, Michelle Rhee, has aggressively pushed for changes in the city’s 45,000-student system during her 2½ years at the helm—closing poor-performing schools, asserting more authority over administrative staff, and creating a new teacher-evaluation system, which judges educators on everything from student test scores to classroom evaluation to “core professionalism”—whether they show up on time and perform basic duties.
Some of the city’s NAEP gains occurred under Ms. Rhee’s predecessor, former Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, whose work the chancellor acknowledged at the event in Washington on Tuesday. Urban districts, she said, need to bring the goals of improving student performance and judging the record of teachers and other employees “into alignment.”
“You cannot expect that you are going to keep the exact same people, doing the exact same things, and that you’re going to see wildly radical, different results,” Ms. Rhee said.
Ms. Rhee observed that she has what she sees as an advantage over many urban superintendents: The mayor controls the city’s schools, and the chancellor answers to him, rather than having to run major policy changes through a school board.
“The advantages of this structure are immense,” she said.
While some new cities taking part in the trial urban NAEP scored at roughly the same level as other large cities in the study, others, like Detroit, produced results well below even their urban counterparts’. Detroit scored 200 in grade 4 on a 500-point scale, compared with 231 among large cities. Sixty-nine percent of Detroit students scored “below basic” on the 4th grade NAEP, a much higher proportion than the next-lowest-performing district in that category, Cleveland, at 49 percent.
‘Outrage’ Over Scores
Mr. Casserly predicted Detroit would need “a broad coalition of folks to come together” to turn around its system—from city officials to community leaders.
“I think they have no choice,” Mr. Casserly said. “Unless they address this situation, they don’t have much future as a city.”
Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, appointed Robert C. Bobb as emergency financial manager for the city schools. Mr. Bobb has since ordered a major restructuring of the 84,000-student district, closing struggling schools and closely scrutinizing the budget. (“Decline and Fall,” Aug. 12, 2009.)
The NAEP scores are a “complete indictment of the adult leadership in this district,” Mr. Bobb said in a statement. “We want people to have not just a sense of urgency after seeing these scores, but a sense of outrage over these scores.”
Change is coming, Mr. Bobb vowed in an interview. The city is in the process of overhauling its academic standards to bring them more in alignment with NAEP, with the goal of lifting academic expectations and encouraging broader, critical-thinking skills among students, he said. He noted that the effort was inspired in part by a similar academic overhaul undertaken by Mr. Janey in the District of Columbia. Mr. Bobb was school board president during Mr. Janey’s tenure.
The city is remaking its math and literacy programs with the help of federal stimulus funding. And it has a tentative agreement with the city’s teachers on a new contract that will revamp how teachers are evaluated, Mr. Bobb said.
“We have several emergencies in Detroit. We have a financial emergency, but we also have an academic emergency,” Mr. Bobb explained. The dismal NAEP scores, he predicted, would create a “body of believers” in the need for serious changes.
“We have to strike on all fronts,” he added. “These things can’t be done on the margins.”
The urban districts participating in the trial urban NAEP are demographically diverse, though they generally serve a much higher proportion of minority students than the nation as a whole. For instance, 54 percent of 4th graders tested on the national NAEP were white, but among urban districts, the percentage ranged from 53 percent in Jefferson County to just 3 percent in Detroit.
A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Some Urban Districts Exhibit Progress on Math Assessment