Reading achievement in a set of large urban districts has stayed mostly flat since 2009, based on new national test results, while in mathematics, half the school systems saw some growth over the past two years, including Atlanta, the district at the center of a recent, high-profile cheating scandal.
In math, four out of 18 big-city districts posted statistically significant 4th grade gains from 2009 to 2011, while six out of 18 made progress at 8th grade, according to data released last week from the Trial Urban District Assessment, which tests representative samples of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”
Atlanta was the only district to make math gains at both grade levels since 2009.
In reading, meanwhile, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district was the only participant to see reading gains of statistical significance since 2009, and those were only at the 8th grade level.
The longer historical view tells a more hopeful story, however. Nearly all the districts that have participated in TUDA since the early 2000s have made gains in both subjects.
Since 2003, some urban districts have seen significant improvements in their scores on the math NAEP.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics
For instance, all six urban systems that took part in the 4th grade reading exam back in 2002, when TUDA began, posted higher scores this round. And in math, nine of 10 districts gained ground since 2003 both at the 4th and 8th grades. (Cleveland saw no statistically significant changes.)
Atlanta’s academic growth since 2009, and over the long haul, seems especially noteworthy, given that the system has been reeling from a state investigation that found widespread cheating on state assessments for a number of years. (“Report Details ‘Culture of Cheating’ in Atlanta Schools,” July 13, 2011.)
In a conference call with reporters last week, a federal official emphasized that, based on a separate federal investigation, there was no reason to believe the cheating extended to NAEP.
“The short story is we couldn’t find any evidence [of cheating],” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “What happened is virtually impossible on NAEP” because of its format and other factors, he added.
Atlanta’s strongest gains were in 8th grade math, where the district climbed 6 points on the 500-point scale since 2009, and 22 points since 2003. Measured another way, the proportion of Atlanta students scoring “basic” or above climbed from 30 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2011.
In reading, Atlanta saw no statistically significant changes since 2009, but climbed by 16 points since 2002 at 4th grade and by 17 points at 8th grade.
“There was cheating by some teachers on the state tests, but at the same time, what you saw by way of reform in the district was real,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, who took part in the conference call.
Narrowing the Gap
The latest TUDA results came about a month after a new round of NAEP data in reading and math for the nation was released. (“NAEP Results Show Math Gains, But 4th Grade Reading Still Flat,” Nov. 9, 2011.)
That data showed that average reading scores were flat in the 4th grade, but indicated a slight increase in 8th grade reading as well as math at both grade levels since 2009.
The new TUDA report not only provides a close look not only at the set of participating districts, but also highlights average achievement for students across all large U.S. cities and it suggests the achievement trend here largely mirrors the nation as a whole.
However, the pace of improvement for large cities appears to be eclipsing that of the nation.
For example, 8th grade math scores for students from big cities climbed 3 points from 2009, compared with 1 point for the nation. In taking a longer view, large cities gained 12 points since 2003, compared with 7 for the nation.
In 4th grade reading, there was no significant change since 2009 for the nation or for large cities, but urban students posted a 9-point increase since 2002, compared with a 3-point rise in the national average.
“We’ve continued to narrow the differences between urban school districts and the nation at large,” said Mr. Casserly.
He noted that the gap for the first time was less than 10 points in all four categories—that is, in both grade levels and subjects.
Mr. Casserly said his organization earlier this fall issued a report on the factors that help to explain why some urban districts have shown greater gains than others.
The report identifies some common threads among urban districts that have shown strong improvements over time. They include strong and stable leadership and setting clear, systemwide goals and a “culture of accountability” for meeting them, as well as a coherent, well-articulated program of curriculum and instruction and regular use of data to gauge learning, modify practice, and target resources.
Detroit Makes Headway
Although Atlanta was the only TUDA district to make gains in math at both the 4th and 8th grades since 2009, half the participants did see significant improvement in one or the other grade.
Those to do so at the 4th grade were Austin, Texas; Baltimore; and Philadelphia. At the 8th grade, the other districts to improve were Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Detroit, the District of Columbia, and Jefferson County, Ky.
The largest gains posted in 8th grade math were for Detroit, which climbed 8 points since 2009. But even with those gains, its score of 246 was the lowest of all 21 districts to participate in TUDA this year. Measured another way, 71 percent of Detroit’s 8th graders scored below basic in the subject. And only 4 percent were “proficient” or “advanced.”
In Baltimore, where the results were released last week, 4th graders posted a statistically significant increase of 3 points in math from 2009. A 4-point increase in 8th grade math was not statistically significant.
“We have made good progress in math, where we have focused enormous efforts because it has been our weakest area,” said Andrés A. Alonso, the district’s chief executive officer and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, in a statement.
This year, three urban school districts participated in TUDA for the first time: Albuquerque, N.M.; Dallas; and Hillsborough County, Fla. They join 18 others that have taken part more than once.
A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Urban Districts Post Gains on NAEP Math, but Reading Flatlines