Students in the largest urban public school systems in the United States showed improvement on 2003 standardized tests in both math and reading compared with 2002 results, according to a study done by the Council of Great City Schools.
For reformers who have long been seeking concrete evidence that efforts to improve urban education are paying off, the test results were an encouraging sign, particularly in the lower grades.
"These are solid results," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. "Last year, we started to show results with a smaller survey but this is more encouraging."
The study reviewed test scores from 61 urban school districts in 37 states and compared 2003 results with those from 2002. Forty-seven percent of fourth-graders in the study scored at or above proficiency in reading - a gain of almost five percentage points from 2002.
In math, 51 percent of fourth-graders tested at or above proficiency, demonstrating an improvement of nearly seven percentage points.
Eighth-grade scores showed lesser gains - a one-point percent improvement in reading and a three-point increase in math.
Although the improvement in test scores coincides with the implementation of the federal education law No Child Left Behind, most experts are quick to point out that the law has not been in effect long enough to have affected last year's test scores.
Some credit instead the standards movement, a reform slowly put into place beginning under the first Bush administration and then continuing on throughout the Clinton administration, in addition to increased pressure for school reform from both state politicians and the business community over the past couple of decades.
But despite years of effort to clarify curricula and sharpen the focus on math and reading basics, the gains hoped for on standardized tests have seemed elusive in many urban districts.
So for teachers and administrators in large urban districts the latest survey results are very good news, says Mr. Jennings. "It will encourage teachers in the system," he says. "They get so much criticism and they get beaten down. This success may now build on itself."
Under the new federal law, beginning in 2005 states will be testing all children in Grades 3 through 8 annually.