Curriculum

Urban Students Lag In Reading and Writing, NAEP Scores Show

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 22, 2003 6 min read
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Students in six of the biggest and most diverse U.S. cities are well behind the national average in reading and writing, but in some categories and several of the districts, 4th and 8th graders who took national assessments in those subjects last year were on a par with their peers around the country.

The NAEP 2002 Trial Urban District Assessment results in reading and writing are available from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The first trial urban-district study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released here July 22, offers another gauge of how big-city school systems are doing in moving students to proficiency in the key subjects.

The exams in reading and writing were given in the winter of 2002 to a nationally representative sample of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, as well as cohorts of 4th and 8th graders in more than 40 states. The tests were also given on a trial basis to samples of students in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington to gauge how well students in those cities measure up to the national average and to each other.

“We know that we have a long way to go, but we were encouraged by the performance of the individual groups in some cities and encouraged by the writing results, which were at or close to the national average in some cities,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Although most educators and policymakers recognize that the demographic diversity and poverty found in the big districts can create challenges in raising student achievement, most of those school systems have launched aggressive reading initiatives to bring all students up to their respective standards.

NAEP, known as the nation’s “report card,” was mandated by Congress more than 30 years ago and provides the best source of comparative and trend data on student achievement at the national and state levels in a variety of subjects.

Observers say including the district-level assessment gives education leaders essential information in moving their school improvement efforts forward.

“What NAEP shows, and what couldn’t be seen so clearly before, is that the education picture in these big-city school districts isn’t just the dreary gray of failure,” said Sheila M. Ford, the principal of Horace Mann Elementary School in the District of Columbia and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the NAEP program.

The Washington-based council of urban schools is currently organizing a blue- ribbon panel to study the results of the tests and analyze the programs and policies in those six districts that help or inhibit student achievement in the subjects, Mr. Casserly said. His group represents nearly 60 of the nation’s large-city school districts and was instrumental in getting the district-level assessment started.

In its own analysis of state assessments, the council has found significant improvement in math achievement among its member districts, and some signs that reading scores are also beginning to climb.

While the NAEP results reaffirm the challenges of bringing students in the nation’s cities up to proficiency in reading and writing—as well as in other subjects—their participation in the first- ever district study since the national assessment was instituted in 1969 demonstrates their commitment to addressing the needs of struggling students, Mr. Casserly said.

“In many ways, for us, the news was less in the results than in the courage and willingness of these major cities to be accountable and transparent about their results, and to signal once again that we are very serious about raising performance levels in the cities,” he said.

Below Average

On the reading test, none of the six districts reached the national average score of 217 on the 500-point scale for 4th graders and 263 for 8th graders.

Houston and New York City 4th graders outperformed their peers in the other districts with an average scale score of 206, more than 10 points higher than the other four jurisdictions. On the 8th grade test, Chicago students scored an average 249, just 1 point higher than Houston. Students in the District of Columbia scored 240 points, while those in Los Angeles and Atlanta scored 237 and 236, respectively. The sample of 8th graders from New York did not meet statistical standards for the test because some schools withdrew from participation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the city just a few months earlier.

Among 4th graders, most of the urban pupils could not demonstrate even “basic” performance on the reading test. In Houston and New York, just over half the children fell below the “basic” level, while some two-thirds of the 4th graders in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles and 69 percent in Washington were “below basic.” In the 8th grade, some four in 10 students in Chicago and Houston turned in a below-basic performance, while more than half those in the other districts were at that level.

Results on the 4th grade writing test, meanwhile, showed the most promise, officials said at the press conference held to announce the results. On that test, scores for pupils in Houston and New York were not statistically different from the national average of 153 on a 300-point scale. The older students in each of the city school systems, however, fell more than 10 points below the national average of 152.

In both subjects, wide gaps in achievement appeared between white students, at the higher end of the performance scale, and their black and Hispanic peers. Such differences have also been evident on the national- and state-level assessments.

Achievement Gaps

While more than 90 percent of the white 4th graders in each of the urban districts—including 98 percent of those in Atlanta—performed at least at the basic level on the writing test, the percentages of black and Hispanic students to do so ranged from 71 percent to 83 percent. At least a third of the white pupils—and 64 percent of those in the District of Columbia and 70 percent in Atlanta—were deemed to be “proficient” in the subject. Among African- American and Hispanic youngsters in that grade, just 7 percent to 21 percent demonstrated proficiency, or mastery over the challenging subject matter.

But officials pointed to some cause for optimism. The black 4th graders in New York and Houston, for example, scored significantly higher than the 139 national-average score for blacks, and Hispanic students in both those cities scored statistically the same as the national average for that subgroup.

In reading, though, the achievement gap was even wider in some of the cities. In Washington, for example, 91 percent of white 4th graders were at or above the basic level, compared with just 28 percent of black pupils and 34 percent of Hispanic ones. In Atlanta, two- thirds of white students were deemed proficient on the test; just 8 percent of black students were. The sample of Hispanic 4th graders tested in the district was not sufficient to generate a reliable result.

As with the results of the state-level NAEP reading assessment, released here last month, the rate at which students were excluded from taking the test because of disabilities or language difficulties could also affect the interpretation of the results, some observers said.

In Houston, more than 40 percent of the students identified for the student sample had disabilities or limited English proficiency, and 17 percent were excluded from taking the test. But in Los Angeles, where 51 percent of the children were identified as having disabilities or language difficulties, just 8 percent of the initial sample was excluded. Nationwide, some 7 percent of students were omitted from the test-taking for those reasons. Exclusion rates at the 8th grade level did not differ significantly from the national average of 6 percent in any of the participating districts.

Another set of results from the $2.5 million urban study, authorized under the fiscal 2002 federal education budget, will be released in the fall in reading, as well as mathematics. The 2003 assessment report will include four additional cities-Boston; Charlotte- Mecklenburg, N.C.; Cleveland; and San Diego.

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