Urban Schools Continue Test-Score Gains, Report Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — March 28, 2006 3 min read
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Students in urban school districts have made steady gains on state tests in the past four years, in many cases outpacing their states’ average rates of improvement, a study issued last week concludes.

The report, released March 21 by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for urban districts, found that in big-city school districts, students improved faster in mathematics than they did in reading, and that 4th graders posted bigger gains than did 8th graders.

“Beating the Odds VI: A City-By-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps On State Assessments,” is available from the Council of the Great City Schools.

The group’s sixth annual “Beating the Odds” report says that the proportion of 4th graders scoring at or above proficiency in math increased by 14 percentage points from 2002 to 2005—from 44.5 percent of those students to 58.5 percent. On reading, the proportion at or above proficient rose 11 points, from 43.3 percent to 54.4 percent.

Among 8th graders, 36.1 percent scored at or above proficient in reading in 2002, and that proportion rose to 39.7 percent in 2005, an increase of 3.6 percentage points. In math, 37.3 percent of students scored at that level in 2002, rising 8.4 points, to 45.7 percent, last year.

The report also shows preliminary results suggesting that the districts studied are narrowing racial and ethnic gaps in state test performance—at times, at rates faster than for their states overall.

Addressing district leaders at the council’s annual legislative and policy conference in Washington, where the report was released, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings commended the big-city districts on their progress.

“Thanks to the hard work of students, parents, educators, and administrators like you,” Ms. Spellings said, “we’re well on our way to every child learning on grade level by 2014,” the deadline for student proficiency set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Upward Movement

Since 2000, more than 70 percent of the 66 urban districts in the study improved their state math scores in 4th and 8th grades at paces equal to or faster than their states’.

For the analysis, the council calculated what portion of students in a given district and nationally scored at proficient or higher levels on their states’ tests and compared progress against previous years’ reports.

In reading, 59 percent of the districts improved their 4th grade scores at the same or faster rates than their states’, and 73 percent did so in 8th grade reading.

The report acknowledges that while urban districts are making steady gains, they still generally lag behind state and national averages on tests. But, it notes, such districts serve far higher proportions of low- income, immigrant, and minority children than do other districts. Such students generally lag behind their better-off and white peers on standardized tests.

For the first time, the council included in its report trend data from urban districts’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally sponsored test known as “the nation’s report card.” Since the proficiency bar is generally considered to be higher on NAEP than on state tests, critics have used the lower scores posted on the national assessment to argue that states should use a more rigorous definition of proficiency on their own tests.

The urban NAEP data showed, for instance, that 24 percent of 4th graders scored at the proficient level or above in math, a 4-point gain from 2003, when the NAEP math test was first given in those districts, to 2005. In reading, 20 percent of 4th graders scored proficient, a 3-point gain from 2002, when the reading test was first given.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the council, said his group included the urban NAEP data in the report about the state test data this year because it buttresses state trends showing steady progress by urban students.

“The people who criticize the state tests may be right about rigor in comparison to NAEP,” he said. “But either way, you’re getting the data pointing in the same direction, which gives us a bit more confidence that what you’ve got here is a real trend.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Urban Schools Continue Test-Score Gains, Report Finds


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