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‘Nation’s Report Card:’ Urban Districts Making Long-Range Gains

Results are out for the 21 urban school districts that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” and there are encouraging 10-year trends of overall improvement in reading and math in grades 4 and 8.At the same time, gaps persist among students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, for English language learners, and for many minority students when compared with their Asian and white classmates.(For a breakdown of the results, <a href=”http://<p>Results <a data-cke-saved-href=” http:=”" nationsreportcard.gov=”" reading_math_tuda_2013=”" #=”" “=”">are out for the 21 urban school districts that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” and there are encouraging 10-year trends of overall improvement in reading and math in grades 4 and 8.At the same time, gaps persist among students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, for English language learners, and for many minority students when compared with their Asian and white classmates.(For a breakdown of the results, check out my EWA colleague Mikhail Zinshteyn’s overview.)

The Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) is now in its 10th year. In a call with reporters Tuesday, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, said looking at changes in district scores between just a few cycles of the test could leave a false impression that gains are not being made.

“If you stand back from the individual tree, you will see a forest that is growing taller and getting stronger,” Casserly said.

The District of Columbia improved in reading and math in both grades – the only city of the 21 TUDA districts to do so. Los Angeles improved in three of the four subject-grade combinations, and Atlanta improved in two.

Casserly said a few of the cities “held their own” in the assessments despite significant budget cuts and, in some cases, increases in the size of the student population that was tested. In many districts, the exclusion rates – the percentages of students with disabilities and those classified as English language learners who don’t take part in the assessments – are declining. (For more on how exclusion rates can affect NAEP results, take a look at Liz Bowie’s reporting for the Baltimore Sun.)

“In general, the cities have devoted substantial energy to improving the quality of their instructional programs and the rigor of their standards,” Casserly said. “It’s hard to believe that these efforts aren’t reflected in the numbers we see today.”

When it comes to weighing these kinds of results, it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation. As Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP, said when the national results came out last month: “NAEP is very good at telling us where we stand, but it’s not very good at telling us why.”

That, of course, won’t stop people from using the TUDA findings to further their own arguments about what public schools should – and should not – be doing. (Check out Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week for a trenchant warning about misuses of NAEP.)

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the NAEP results “show incremental progress despite the challenges urban schools face, but poverty and economic inequality—as economists and even the Pope have acknowledged—will stymie long-term gains unless policymakers face these issues head-on.”

Weingarten noted that the D.C. fourth graders tested on the latest NAEP assessment are the first group to have had access to the city’s universal pre-K program. “Conversely, Cleveland was the lowest-scoring district and had the smallest gains in mathematics; it also had the highest percentage of low-income students,” Weingarten said.

It would be interesting if D.C. can make a convincing argument that its preschool program influenced the outcome on NAEP. But building that kind of case represents the difficulty that comes with using these types of assessments to drive policy decisions.

Andrew Rotherham of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, who authors the Eduwonk blog, said “context” should be the watchword of the day.

“The answer to not making inappropriate claims about causation isn’t to say the NAEP data doesn’t tell us anything at all,” Rotherham said. “The problem is when group X says the results don’t matter until the day when the results fit the point of view group X is trying to advance.”

The District’s gains are encouraging, Rotherham said, although it’s a great example of where context needs to be considered.

“If scores had stayed flat in D.C. for a long period of time, that would be a reason for some concern,” he said. “Clearly something is happening in the classrooms and out of the classrooms that is changing things — that’s good to know. The next step is to unpack the data and figure out what we can really learn.”


Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at erichmond@ewa.org. Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.


Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

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