New urban school scores show room for improvement

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Students in six big cities are largely behind their national peers in reading and writing, but there are pockets of promising performance, new figures show.

The 2002 urban scores are the first school-district results to be included in the report card known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement yardstick, which began in 1969, had only covered state and national performance.

Six school districts volunteered to set an urban benchmark, allowing them to compare their fourth-graders and eighth-graders and to gauge whether school reforms work over time. The six are Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.

"We knew we were taking a risk in joining up for this test, knowing it was going to be another case of Atlanta students underperforming," said Sharron Hunt, chief accountability officer for Atlanta Public Schools. "That doesn't mean we have low expectations; I believe the students can and will achieve higher rates -- all of our students."

The standard for all students is "proficient," which means solid academic performance at a given grade. Nationally, only about three in 10 students reach or exceed that mark in reading and writing; urban students did worse than that, with their results varying by city.

That's no surprise, educators say, because city schools have higher rates of students who are poor or speak English as a second language. The six districts all have high percentages of black or Hispanic students, who typically score below whites on standardized tests.

The achievement gap is about the same in most of the six cities as it is across the country, which suggests it is a national concern as much as an urban one, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the coalition of large urban districts that pushed for the new tests.

In Los Angeles, roughly 40 percent of fourth-graders tested had limited English ability. That's a factor, not an excuse, said Roy Romer, superintendent of the city's school district.

"The value to us is, over time, how do we change?" Romer said. "We're low, but we are coming up rapidly. ... We have a very intensive reading program here, and our districts have increased our elementary grade scores at twice the state average."

The National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department, runs the assessment, which periodically tracks achievement on a range of core subjects.

Closing the performance gap between the poor and the affluent, between minorities and whites, is a long-standing challenge for schools and the focus of a broad new federal effort.

In Atlanta, Hunt said, the national scores will do more than serve as a starting point -- they will drive change. For example, the district may realize it must put more emphasis on a specific reading skill, or it could shift some lessons to an earlier grade, she said.

In nearly all cases, the city students fared better in writing than in reading.

Compared to those who reached the proficient mark, a higher percentage of city students read and wrote at a basic level or better. That means they had at least partial mastery of skills needed for solid work. Still, they scored below the national average in most cases.

Among the bright spots, officials said: Fourth-grade writers in New York matched the national average of students who achieved at least proficient writing -- meaning organized, detailed work that developed the main idea and showed awareness of the audience. Houston fourth-graders also performed similarly to national peers in writing.

Although the District of Columbia was included among the urban scores for comparative purposes, its results were first released with state and national data earlier this year.

Among some other key findings of the city scores:

--In writing, 11 to 27 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded the proficient mark; 10 to 19 percent of eighth-graders did so. National averages are 27 percent and 30 percent.

--In reading, 10 to 19 percent of fourth-graders reached at least the proficient level; 8 to 17 percent of eighth-graders did the same. The national average is about 30 percent in both grades.

--New York schools had the highest percentage of fourth-graders who scored at or above proficient in reading and writing. The district did not have enough schools participating for eighth-grade results to be reported.

--Houston schools had the highest percentage of eighth-graders who met or exceeded the proficient level in reading and writing.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., an advocate for equal resources in all school districts, said the condition of urban schools is the key point, not race or student poverty. Big-city students have "the least qualified teachers, the most overcrowded classrooms and the most outdated learning materials," he said.


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