- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The education reform movement to establish state achievement standards and the No Child Left Behind Act are credited in a new report for “important gains” made by urban elementary school students in reading and math.

“This is the first time that we have had really substantial progress in reading achievement at the fourth-grade level,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. The council issued the report for 61 urban public school systems at its annual legislative and policy conference in the District.

The report showed that 47.8 percent of fourth-graders in big-city public schools were reading “at or above proficient” last year, an increase of almost five percentage points from 2002. Fifty-one percent of fourth-graders were “at or above proficient” in mathematics, an increase of 6.8 percentage points.

“Elementary reading gains in cities were made at the same time that national numbers are pretty flat, so we’re running counter to a national trend,” Mr. Casserly said.

“If we continue these gains, we will affect the national numbers. It’s very promising. We’re not declaring victory because the [urban] districts are still performing below state and national averages,” he said.

Mr. Casserly said the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act “is just starting programmatically. The NCLB made us focus more tightly than ever before on student achievement.”

“We still have the challenge in reading to increase comprehension levels in the upper elementary grades and middle schools so children are not learning to read but reading to learn,” he said.

The report said a third of the cities had reading gains in all grades. Almost three-fourths of fourth-graders tested last year narrowed the achievement gap between white and black students and almost half narrowed the distance in mathematics.

But not all gaps are closing.

In the District, the achievement gap between white and black fourth-graders is 64.4 percentage points in reading, almost two points higher than 2002. Just 26.3 percent of black fourth-graders tested proficient or above in reading, while 90.7 percent of white fourth-graders were reading at or above grade level.

The gap in math is 58.8 percentage points, an increase of one percentage point from 2002. In 2003, 28.8 percent of black students were labeled proficient or advanced compared with 87.6 percent of white students.

More than half of urban school districts, however, posted greater reading gains than their states, even though their students are overwhelmingly minority and from families in poverty, the report said.

The average per-pupil expenditure in big-city schools is $7,222, up from $5,999 in the 1995-96 academic year. The national average grew from $5,689 to $6,911, or 21.5 percent, in the same period.

The District’s average per-pupil cost was $10,874 in the 2001-02 school year, compared with $7,731 in Maryland and $6,841 in Virginia, the report said.

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, praised urban teachers and school administrators for overcoming difficult challenges to post achievement gains. He said their performance discredits opponents of No Child Left Behind who would return to “lower standards and less accountability.”

Education Secretary Rod Paige said the report “provides a context for understanding the challenges of large urban school districts and how serious they are about improving teaching and learning.”

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