Although presented to the public in positive, sometimes glowing terms, the first-ever reports of comparable data on reading and mathematics achievement in 10 of the nation’s largest urban school districts reveal the staggering extent of the failure of the American public school system to deliver any reasonable measure of education to most of the children in those districts, particularly to children from minority and low-income families.
The study–the Trial Urban Assessment from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–shows only 19 percent of eighth-graders in large central city school districts can read at a proficient level, compared to 30 percent nationally. In mathematics, only 17 percent of eighth-graders in large central city school districts are proficient, compared to 27 percent nationally; in several of the urban districts, math proficiency levels drop to the single digits. Proficiency levels for minority and low-income students are even lower.
In announcing the results from the Trial Urban Assessment in December, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige gave credit to the 10 districts for “courageously volunteering” to participate. The 3 million children in those districts, he said, “are often the ones who are left wandering in the academic shadows of their more privileged peers.”
The results of the Urban Assessment paint a bleak future for minority and low-income students who attend urban public schools. Based on the proficiency levels achieved by these students after eight years, it seems clear that, whatever activities may be taking place in urban public schools, education isn’t one of them.
Although 30 percent of eighth-graders nationally can read at a proficient level, the percentage plummets to just 12 percent for black eighth-graders. And only four of the 10 urban districts could match or marginally exceed this low level of eighth-grade reading achievement: Boston (14 percent), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (14 percent), New York City (13 percent), and Houston (12 percent). The remaining six districts perform worse than the national average: Chicago (10 percent), Atlanta (8 percent), Cleveland (8 percent), the District of Columbia (8 percent), Los Angeles (7 percent), and San Diego (7 percent).
Hispanic eighth-graders achieve at a slightly higher level in reading than black eighth-graders, but still only 14 percent nationally read at a proficient level. In Los Angeles, the figure drops to 6 percent.
Among low-income eighth-grade students–those eligible for the federal Free/Reduced Price Lunch Program–only 15 percent nationally read at a proficient level. Only two urban districts managed to reach even this low level: New York City (18 percent) and Boston (16 percent).
While reading achievement among minority and low-income students may be extremely low, math achievement is even lower.
Only 7 percent of black eighth-graders nationally can do math at a proficient level. Six of the 10 urban districts cannot reach even this low hurdle: Boston (6 percent), Cleveland (5 percent), Chicago (4 percent), Atlanta (3 percent), the District of Columbia (3 percent) and Los Angeles (2 percent). These are failure rates of enormous magnitude, with tragic–and lifelong–consequences for the children involved.
Hispanic eighth-graders achieve at a slightly higher level in math than black eighth-graders, but still only 11 percent nationally can do math at a proficient level. In the District of Columbia and Los Angeles, that figure drops to 3 percent; in Cleveland, it drops even lower, to 2 percent.
Among low-income eighth-grade students, only 11 percent nationally do math at a proficient level. However, only two urban districts managed to top or match this low level: New York City (15 percent) and Boston (11 percent). In Atlanta and the District of Columbia, only 2 percent of low-income eighth-graders could perform math at a proficient level–a failure rate of 98 percent.
Missing the Point
Despite achievement levels in the low teens or single digits, many observers did not see failure.
The editors of The Christian Science Monitor saw “a bit brighter” picture when scores were sorted by income and demographics. To New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the results confirmed that “New York has the best system of public education of any major city in the United States.” The reaction of Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, was remarkably upbeat.
“The perception that students in urban schools do less well than others and have poor academic performance is not supported by the 2003 NAEP results,” said Winick in a December 17 statement.
“Wrong,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “Their academic performance, by and large, is horrendous.
“The fact is that huge numbers of urban–as well as non-urban–students in America today are not achieving anywhere near satisfactorily,” added Finn.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
Details of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s Trial Urban District Assessment are available online:
Highlights for the Trial Urban District Assessment, which provide details of subgroup performance at the district level, are available online also: