Big city schools making progress but still have far to go, report says

A NAEP study of academic achievement in big cities showed only modest gains compared with 2011, but the picture has improved significantly during the past decade.

Public school students in some of America’s biggest cities have made significant long-term gains, according to the latest data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often known as the Nation’s Report Card. Despite that progress, some subsets of students are still languishing at very low achievement levels.

Wednesday’s report on the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) gives snapshots of reading and math achievement for fourth- and eighth-graders in 21 districts and comes 10 years after the first TUDA.

While there wasn’t much change between 2011 and 2013 – only the District of Columbia made gains for both subjects and both grades – most districts have boosted scores substantially since 2003, and the gap between the national average and the average for big cities has narrowed in that time. In math, for instance, that gap narrowed by 38 percent in fourth grade and by 43 percent in eighth grade.

“If you look solely at any two-year testing cycle, the results … sometimes lead observers to conclude that urban schools are not making any headway. But if you stand back from the individual trees, you will see a forest that is growing taller and getting stronger,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in a phone call with reporters.

Many cities have raised scores, increased the portion of students scoring above the “basic” and “proficient” levels, and improved scores more rapidly than the nation as a whole, Mr. Casserly said. “These NAEP data give us the tools we need to ask hard questions about our instructional practices. And the results are giving us even greater confidence that urban education in this nation can be substantially improved.”

Not all education policy analysts are so confident.

“Yes, over the past 10 years, urban districts have made some progress, but they are still performing at heartbreakingly low levels, especially when it comes to low-income African-American and Hispanic students,” says Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a senior policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

For example, he says, “after a decade of progress in Atlanta, the eighth-grade reading proficiency rate is still only 22 percent…. Fewer than 1 in 4 kids [are] entering high school able to read at the level they need to.” Nationally, the comparable figure is 34 percent.

Districts participate voluntarily in the TUDA, which is limited to those that have a population of at least 250,000 and a majority of students that have low incomes or are racial or ethnic minorities. Comparing scores between districts and over time is complicated by the fact that local demographic shifts can have a big impact, but the report gives a picture of the progress in America’s cities overall, with certain districts demonstrating particular gains.

Perhaps most notable this year is the District of Columbia: It made statistically significant gains in both subjects and at both grade levels between 2011 and 2013 and also made some of the biggest gains in the past decade compared with other TUDA districts, particularly among fourth-graders.

“Noteworthy are the substantial gains in mathematics and reading made by D.C. fourth-graders since 2003, as they were the first tested group to benefit from the city’s universal pre-K program,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a statement. “If we want to see sustainable, scalable progress for our kids, it’s time to invest in strategies such as preparing teachers, giving them the time and tools to teach, providing students with project-based and experiential learning, and providing timely interventions like pre-K and tutoring to help disadvantaged students – as top-performing US districts and countries do.”

Despite its progress, D.C.’s scores remain below the national average and many big city averages. Only 8 percent of low-income eighth-graders in D.C. are proficient in math, Mr. Smarick notes.

Students in Los Angeles also made significant gains between 2011 and 2013, improving in three of four subject/grade areas. But only 9 percent of African-American eighth-graders there are proficient in reading, Mr. Smarick says.

Fresno, Calif.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, and Dallas all improved in at least one subject/grade level.

A number of districts – including Austin, Texas; Boston; Charlotte; Hillsborough County (Tampa, Fla.); Jefferson County (Louisville, Ky.); Miami-Dade County; and San Diego – held their own in 2013 when compared with the nation as a whole, with scores equal to or above that national average in at least one subject and grade.

The worst news was for Cleveland, where, since 2003, scores dropped by 6 points in fourth-grade reading and there was no significant change in any other subject or grade.

For those watching the results of intensive reform efforts that have largely been concentrated in big urban districts – whose students face considerable demographic challenges compared with the rest of the country – the news that many cities seem to be improving more rapidly than the country overall is encouraging.

“While we still have a lot of work to do to close achievement gaps in our largest cities, this progress is encouraging,” US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “It means that in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are ‘proficient’ or above in math and reading than was the case four years earlier. In particular, three districts that pressed ahead with ambitious reforms – the D.C. Public Schools System, Los Angeles, and Fresno – made notable progress since 2011.”

There are significant demographic differences between the districts, which likely play a big role in performance. In Cleveland, for instance, 100 percent of fourth-graders are eligible for free or reduced lunch – the common marker for low-income students – compared with 56 percent in Charlotte.

“But demography is not destiny,” says Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “There are many students in districts around the country that, despite fact that demographics would predict lower achievement, manage to beat that. That’s the challenge for all of us.”

Some districts, such as New York, have been implementing ambitious reforms that are only just beginning in the current school year, Casserly said, and he expects their performance to improve in coming years.

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