Press Release

Results released today from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trial Urban District Assessment offer a mix of some very encouraging and disheartening news about the academic performance of students in some of the nation’s largest school districts.

The results show that some urban school districts clearly do a much better job educating children than other districts – powerful evidence that schools and districts make a big difference in student achievement and that low achievement for some groups of students is not inevitable. While all these districts have a long way to go in realizing the learning potential of their students, many are outpacing the nation and their respective states in raising student achievement.

“The really good news is that these cities made more progress in the last two years than the country as a whole and the states in which they sit,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. “That’s very encouraging.

“What’s also striking, however, is the difference in achievement of similar groups of students across the different districts,” she said.

For example, African-American fourth-graders in New York scored 19 points higher in reading than African-American students in Los Angeles. In eighth-grade math, low-income students in Boston scored 24 points higher than low-income students in Atlanta.

“These results tell us that we need to permanently abandon the belief that race and poverty determine how much students can and will learn,” Haycock said. “While urban districts face big challenges, it is clear that some districts are responding more effectively than others. School districts play a hugely important role in creating the right conditions for learning.”

One note of caution in interpreting these results: Austin and Houston excluded too many students with disabilities and English-language learners from the fourth-grade reading assessments (20 percent and 23 percent, respectively) to have confidence in the results. (Other cities excluded much smaller proportions of students.)

“Texas needs to examine its policies and work to include more students,” Haycock said. “These kids deserve to count when we evaluate school success.”

Some Bright Spots

The overall results largely mirror the results from Main NAEP, which showed only modest gains in math and virtually no gains in reading. But there are some bright spots of progress in the participating cities. In fourth-grade math, all of the cities made bigger gains between 2003 and 2005 than their respective states, and every district except Charlotte and Chicago made bigger gains than the nation as a whole. In addition, every participating city made more progress than their respective states at helping students get out of the below-basic category and in to higher achievement levels. This pattern isn’t restricted to fourth-grade math: Even as most districts still trail overall achievement in their states, most made bigger gains than their respective states in the other subjects and grades assessed.

Boston was a standout, reducing the percentage of fourth-graders below basic in mathematics by 13 percentage points in just two years (from 41 percent below basic in 2003 to 28 percent in 2005).

Some cities are doing more than just improving faster — they’re actually outperforming their states. San Diego’s students perform better than the state of California in the fourth and eighth grades, in both reading and math. Charlotte outperforms North Carolina in three of four categories, and trails the state in eighth-grade math by one point.

A Long Way to Go

Even as the results show that big cities can make more progress than other districts, the achievement data are a stark reminder that many students simply are not getting the education they need.

More than half of all fourth-graders in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles fall below NAEP’s basic level in reading.

“Students who aren’t taught basic reading skills are relegated to the margins of our society, but they represent the majority of public school students in many of our cities,” Haycock said.

This pattern is repeated in the eighth grade, where majorities of students in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles do not even test at the basic level in math. In five of the participating cities – Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego – more than half of Latino eighth-graders performed at below the basic level. The numbers are even worse for African-American students. More than 70 percent of Black students in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles also are below basic in eighth-grade math. This jeopardizes their ability to succeed in the upper-level math courses required for college and work.

“These numbers represent the broken futures of millions of children,” said Ross Wiener, the Education Trust’s policy director. “It is a moral obligation and an economic imperative to help these cities in their improvement efforts.

“As heartbreaking as some of these numbers are, we are better served by knowing the extent of the challenge in our big cities,” Wiener said. “These big, urban districts deserve a lot of credit for seeking out NAEP as an external benchmark. Their willingness to compare their results publicly indicates a serious focus on student achievement and a desire to learn from each other.

“We should get past the trial phase and open up participation to every district that wants to look at its results on the national test. Hopefully, this openness on the part of these urban districts will build support for the kinds of partnerships, investments, and reforms we need.”


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The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.