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Urban schools make gains in national test scores, report finds

WASHINGTON—Many urban school systems improved in math and reading and narrowed achievement gaps between whites and ethnic groups in the 2003-2004 school year, according to an educational group's analysis released Monday.

Despite improved results on tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act, however, scores for big metropolitan school districts continue to lag behind national and state performance averages.

"We still have a long way to go," said Michael Casserly, the director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an alliance of 65 metropolitan school systems with a total of 7.3 million students.

The No Child Left Behind Act is intended to get all students' performances up to grade level by 2014. It requires schools to meet annually escalating targets for student test scores in reading and math and to close performance gaps among different groups.

Seven in 10 schools in districts represented by the council have improved math scores since 2002, when testing under the act began, according to the group's study, "Beating the Odds." Four in 10 have improved reading scores.

Nonetheless, about half the council's urban students tested less than proficient for their grades. For many districts, the gains were smaller than in the previous school year.

Students are tested in math and reading when they're in grades four, eight and either 10 or 11. Most of the attention thus far has been on the lower two grades.

"Results show clearly impressive gains at the elementary level," Casserly said. "However, high school levels remain fragile and uncertain."

About 55 percent of fourth-grade students in the council's schools scored "proficient" in math, as did 44 percent of eighth-grade students. That's an increase of 11 percentage points for fourth-graders and 7 percentage points for eighth-graders compared with the first tests in 2002.

About half the council's fourth-graders were graded proficient readers in 2003-2004. Just four in 10 eighth-graders made the grade. That's an improvement of 8 percentage points over 2002 for fourth-graders but only 3 percentage points for eighth-graders.

The council comprises New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and most of the nation's biggest and most diverse cities.

Several cities showed marked improvements.

Philadelphia, for example, nearly tripled the number of schools that met yearly progress requirements last year. A total of 160 made that grade, compared with 58 a year earlier. However, 50 of those schools made the goal last year because the state changed its criteria from the 2002-2003 school year to the 2003-2004 year.

Paul Vallas, the system's superintendent, credited President Bush's education law with spurring Philadelphia's public schools to standardize their curricula and set clear goals.

"The accountability that is a part of the No Child Left Behind Act has certainly pressured districts across the country to invest more of their time and effort in instruction," Vallas said.

Among Philadelphia's innovations are benchmark tests every six weeks and a doubling of classroom time devoted to math and literacy, he said.

Broward County, Fla., which includes Fort Lauderdale, and Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, did well, scoring above Florida's state average in reading and math in at least half the grades tested.

The council's members have nearly twice as many minority students and students learning English as the national average. Their poverty rates are well above their states' averages too.

Reading and math gaps between white students and Hispanic and African-American ones also are narrowing, the study found.

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To read the study, go to www.cgcs.org. Click on "Beating the Odds V: A City-by-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps on State Assessments" to focus your search further.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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