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Students in big-city schools show gains in latest NAEP ‘report card’

Students in America‘s largest cities are making gains in math, in many cases faster than students in the nation as a whole.

Reading scores in those large cities — just as in the nation — have largely remained flat for the past two years.

And in some cities — including AtlantaBostonLos Angeles, and Houston — students have made particularly striking gains over the past eight years, while in other cities progress has lagged.

Most notably, the gap between national scores and large-city scores is narrowing.

That’s the good news in the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The release Wednesday provided detailed scores for students in 21 large cities — a voluntary subset that participates in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA). Ten of those cities — Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, WashingtonNew YorkChicagoSan DiegoCharlotte, N.C., Boston, and Cleveland — have participated at least since 2003, giving a decent picture of how their students have fared in that time.

“We’re now down to less than a 10 scale-point difference between [large cities] and the country in reading and math for both fourth and eighth grade,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, noting that that gap has closed by 25 to 35 percent in the past eight years depending on which subject and grade are examined. “It’s clear we’re improving the numbers of kids at a proficient level and decreasing the numbers at the below-basic level — maybe not as fast as we would like, but it’s a convincing set of trend lines that tells us we’re heading in the right direction.”

The data also show wide differences in how cities perform.

One fourth-grade mathematics problem, for instance, asked students to do a four-digit subtraction problem. The percentage of students answering it correctly ranged from 41 percent in Detroit to 77 percent in Austin, Texas.

The average score for fourth-grade math ranges from 203 in Detroit to 247 in Charlotte (on a 500-point scale), with a national average of 240. And in Charlotte, 48 percent of fourth-graders performed at proficient or advanced, compared with 3 percent in Detroit.

The student populations also vary drastically by city.

In terms of racial makeup, for instance, about 16 percent of fourth-graders nationally are African-American, while in the 21 TUDA districts the averages range from 2 percent in AlbuquerqueN.M., to 87 percent in Baltimore.

A few cities particularly shine in certain areas. In Austin and Charlotte, both fourth- and eighth-graders outperformed their peers in math in both large cities and the nation.

As with the nation, reading scores from the big-city districts were largely stagnant. Charlotte was the only district that posted an increase since 2009, for Grade 8. But in math, four districts improved their scores at Grade 4 since 2009 (Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, and Philadelphia). Six districts did so for Grade 8 (Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and Jefferson County, Ky.).

The hope for all this data — and the reason the TUDA project was started — is to gain clues as to what’s working in certain districts, and how policymakers can continue to make a difference for often-disadvantaged urban students.

NAEP results never show the cause of gains or declines, but Mr. Casserly’s organization recently completed a lengthy review of all the data through 2009, combined with case studies of what different cities were doing, and came to a few conclusions.

The study focused in particular on Atlanta, where students were making reading gains more than three times larger than in other cities or in the nation; on Boston, where students have been making similarly large gains in math; on Charlotte, where students outperform all other TUDA districts in reading and math, even after adjusting for demographics; and on Cleveland, which was the only city to not show consistent gains.

In the end, six key areas seemed to make the difference:

  • Stable reform-focused leadership.
  • Clear goals and mechanisms for holding staff accountable.
  • A common, high-quality curriculum.
  • High-quality, strategic professional development.
  • Good support and oversight for reform efforts.
  • Data systems used to inform those reforms.

“The differences for the districts that really moved were clustered in those six areas,” says Casserly.

In Baltimore, where the TUDA results were released Wednesday, both fourth- and eighth-graders made improvements in math since 2009, though only the fourth-grade change was considered statistically significant.

In prepared remarks Wednesday, Andrés Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, credited numerous reforms in the past two years for the improvements, including overhauling the math curriculum, creating extended learning opportunities for students, providing parents and students with more options, and giving schools more autonomy over resources.

“The TUDA results show us where we are making progress and where we need to focus more attention moving forward,” Superintendent Alonso said, noting that the flat results in reading are unsurprising given that the emphasis on literacy has been more recent. He also praised the wealth of data available in the report.

“I urge my fellow TUDA superintendents to look not just at their scores, but to go deep with the data, use it to direct change, and share our successes and our disappointments,” Alonso said.

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