- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A six-city comparison of children’s reading and writing ability appears to disprove D.C. school officials’ complaints that poor performance of local students was exaggerated in recent national tests.

D.C. schools Superintendent Paul Vance said last month that it was unfair to compare poor reading and writing scores of D.C. students to those of states where suburban schools’ better scores tend to raise statewide averages above lower inner-city levels.

But the new head-to-head city comparison by the National Assessment for Educational Progress shows that D.C. fourth-graders are still poorer readers and writers than their counterparts in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and New York City.

And D.C. students whose native language is English are only on par with fourth-graders in Los Angeles, where the principal minority is Hispanic students with limited English proficiency.

While disappointed with the scores, D.C. school officials said the results do not discredit their argument about the D.C.’s lack of suburban areas, which tend to bring up scores.

“I think what the results show is, Houston and New York did better than the other districts, and the other districts did about the same,” said William Caritj, assistant superintendent for assessment and education accountability. “I think somehow the perception is that D.C. is doing a lot worse than other cities. And I think this shows that is not the case.”

Mr. Caritj said the District will put more effort into teaching reading and writing skills in coming years.

The NAEP comparison, released yesterday at the U.S. Education Department, shows that D.C. and Los Angeles fourth-graders had an average reading score last year of 191, which is 26 points below the national average of 217 and 17 points below the 208 average for all inner-city school districts.

Children in Houston and New York City had the best average reading score — 206 — just two points below the inner cities’ national average and 11 points below the national average.

The D.C. assessment found a 60-point achievement gap between white and black students in reading and a 51-point gap in writing. White fourth-graders had an average reading score of 248 — 21 points above the national average — while black students scored 188, or 39 points below the national average.

The study said performance of white and black eighth-graders in D.C. schools could not be compared because there were too few whites for a statistical comparison.

“Student achievement in these districts is too low,” said Sheila M. Ford, principal of Horace Mann Elementary School in the District and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. “Yes, there’s a tremendous amount of work for them to do. …

“What NAEP shows, and what couldn’t be seen so clearly before, is that the education picture in these big-city school districts isn’t just a dreary gray of failure. When students in the urban districts are compared to each other and to similar groups of students nationwide, which NAEP lets us do for the first time, there are fascinating, thought-provoking variations,” she said.

“Each city … has a good story to tell,” said Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which requested the comparison.

“New York City and Houston fourth-graders were at the national average in writing. Eighth-graders in Chicago and Houston outscored other cities in reading. White fourth-graders in D.C. and Atlanta outpaced white students nationally in reading. And fourth-graders in L.A. scored at or above basic in writing at the same rate as their peers in California,” he said.

Education Secretary Rod Paige called the comparison “very important because now these urban districts can serve as a benchmark to the nation and to other urban districts.

“While the cities’ overall scores are below the national average in reading and writing, the good news is that we can use this assessment as a benchmark for the future,” the secretary said.

Mrs. Ford said D.C. schools “are struggling for a lot of reasons … . Significant improvement in staff development needs to happen like Houston,” where tougher standards and teacher discussions and training in better practices were implemented.

“We are just at the beginning of that [in the District],” Mrs. Ford said. “We have no way to go but up. We are at the beginning of that journey.”

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