City schools bring home better report cards

Urban education often gets a bad rap. But since 2003, a number of large city school districts have outpaced the national average when it comes to improving their students' math and reading skills.

A snapshot of fourth- and eighth-graders released last week featured 11 districts that volunteered for a city-level comparison of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Prior to 2002, the scores were released only on the state and national levels.

The news isn't all good, but the results give cities new tools in their quest to improve public education.

"It helps us track what reforms seem to be working in these systems," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition that lobbied for this measurement, known as the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).

Many of the cities still lag behind national averages despite faster-paced improvements, but two surpassed the nation in fourth-grade math scores - Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. At both grade levels, Boston, Houston, New York, and San Diego are approaching the national average in math scores.

John Easton, a member of the independent governing board that administers NAEP, applauds the signs of improvement. But he also raises concerns about low scores for certain groups in many of these urban districts. In New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Atlanta, for instance, more than 70 percent of black eighth-graders didn't reach the basic math achievement level.

"These students will have enormous difficulty in making the transition to high school and passing, not to mention doing well, in their freshman courses," says Mr. Easton, an education researcher at the University of Chicago.

Broken down by race, results showed that black, Hispanic, and white students in at least half of the 11 districts did better than their counterparts nationwide.

But achievement gaps varied greatly from city to city. For example, in reading scores, white eighth-graders surpassed black students by 19 to 66 points (on a scale where less than 40 points separates "basic" and "proficient"). For Hispanics, the gap with whites ranged from 7 to 53 points.

For Kati Haycock, director of the nonprofit group Education Trust, those differences add to her view that race and poverty don't determine how much students can learn. "School districts play a hugely important role in creating the right conditions for learning," she says.

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