- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

D.C. public school students ranked near the bottom in reading and math skills this year among fourth- and eighth-graders in some of the nation’s largest urban school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Across the country, in reading, only 30 percent of fourth-graders and eighth-graders reach at least the key level, proficient, which means competency over difficult material. In math, 31 percent of fourth-graders and 27 percent of eighth-graders do at least that well.

In almost every case except in Charlotte, N.C., the city students did worse. That means fewer than three out of 10 students achieved at the level they should have, based on federal standards.

Yet in these urban centers, where large numbers of disadvantaged young people live, students compete well when compared with peers elsewhere of the same race, ethnicity or economic level.

In the District, only 10 percent of the fourth-graders and eighth-graders scored at or above the national average in reading proficiency. The percentage for math proficiency fell to 7 percent for fourth-graders and 6 percent for eighth-graders.

The District was among 10 cities that volunteered to set the benchmark in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is regarded as the nation’s report card on a range of subjects. The purpose is to give these cities a valid way to compare themselves with areas that share problems and population trends, and to track their progress on a test known for its stringent scoring.

The other cities involved were Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and San Diego. The District was included for comparison, although its results were released earlier with state and national numbers.

Overall, Charlotte, New York City, San Diego, Boston and Houston had the highest percentages of students performing at a proficient level or better.

Education officials say the new scores reflect expanded efforts by urban districts to help children succeed despite language barriers, crowded conditions and poverty. The results, however, also underscore how much ground schools must gain in raising achievement for all.

In Charlotte, students met the national average in reading and exceeded it in math. Charlotte has far fewer minorities than the other areas, and black and Hispanic students typically score below whites on standardized tests. Fixing that disparity, known as the achievement gap, is the focus of sweeping new federal education laws.

The urban districts in the sample account for one out of eight of the nation’s poor students, one out of seven minority students and one out of six students with limited English skills.

The variation in scores among districts with similar populations shows how much state and district policies affect student learning, said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority students.

Charlotte, for example, has been successful in enrolling more black students in high-level math courses, he said.

Teachers and staff need to change their assumptions about whether inner-city students can achieve, said the Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church in Boston.

“These students, in spite of what they’re going through, or what they lack in terms of housing or health care — have the ability to achieve proficiency,” he said.

Darvin Winick, chairman of the independent board that oversees the test, said the scores should erode the myth that students in urban districts can’t compete.

City comparisons to national averages can obscure the fact that, in a few cases, black students in the cities scored better than blacks nationwide, as also was the case for some Hispanic students.

This is the first time in the test’s history, which dates to 1969, that scores are available in math.

Six of the cities took part in the first district-level reading tests in 2002, and two of them showed significant gains over the past year — Chicago in grade four and Atlanta in grade eight. Large central cities, overall, also improved in fourth-grade reading.

“We know we still have a long way to go, but it is more clear than ever that the reforms that urban schools are pursuing are making a difference where it matters most, student achievement,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban districts.

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