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BEATING THE ODDS: New Report Shows Improvement in Math and Reading Among Urban Schools

“The data not only show consistent gains over the past several years, but a more complete picture of progress in urban schools is emerging,” said Michael Casserly

A new study by ACT finds a gap between what high schools are teaching in their core college preparatory courses and what postsecondary educators expect entering students to know in order for them to succeed in first-year courses. The report, Aligning Postsecondary Expectations and High School Practice: The Gap Defined, attributes the disconnect to unfocused state standards and state assessments that do not adequately measure what students need to know in college.

“The data not only show consistent gains over the past several years, but a more complete picture of progress in urban schools is emerging,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of sixty-seven of the nation’s largest urban public school systems.

While the gains are a positive sign, they also serve as a reminder of how much more improvement is needed—especially when judged against state averages or the requirement in the No Child Left Behind Act that all students reach proficiency.

According to the report, the percentage of fourth graders who are proficient in reading has grown from 43 percent in 2002 to 55 percent in 2006. In addition, math scores for the same group of students increased by a “whopping” 15 points, from 44 percent in 2002 to 59 percent in 2006, the report notes. Although the gap has narrowed in past years, city scores continue to trail the state averages in fourth grade reading (67 percent) and math (72 percent).

Scores are also on the rise at the eighth-grade level, with 42 percent of students scoring at or above the proficient level in reading in 2006, and 46 percent reaching the proficient level in math, increases of 8 and 11 points, respectively. Again, however, the city averages trail the state averages of 60 percent in reading and 61 percent in math, although the gap has narrowed in recent years.

The report also finds that many urban districts have been able to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students since 2000. In math, 60 percent of Great City School districts narrowed the achievement gap between white and African-American eighth graders and 53 percent narrowed the gap between white and Hispanic eighth graders. In reading, 67 percent of Great City School districts narrowed the achievement gap between white and African-American students while 60 percent narrowed the gap between white and Hispanic students.

For the first time, the report also measures the progress of fourth- and eight-grade students who scored below the basic levels in math and reading. In math, the percentage of urban eighth graders who scored “below basic” decreased from 30 percent in 2002 to 26 percent in 2006. In reading, the percentage of urban eighth-grade students who scored “below basic” decreased from 29 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2006.

“Urban schools are clearly increasing the numbers of students scoring above proficiency levels and decreasing the numbers at the lowest, contributing to overall progress where America wants it most,” Casserly said.

The report measures schools only by how they fare against state standards—some of which have drawn criticism for being watered down. As the report notes, there is no national assessment system that allows one to compare one state to another, nor do all states disaggregate results for individual student groups. However, the CGCS says in its report that it is “trying to address this weakness through the Trial Urban District Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and by advocating for national standards in reading, math, and science.”

The report adds that the overall direction of state numbers is consistent with the most recent estimates from the NAEP tests. It notes that math achievement in the cities has improved by “significant margins” in both fourth- and eighth-grades on NAEP and that reading in the cities is improving at the fourth-grade level.

“It is clear … that student achievement in the Great City Schools is improving,” the report reads. “The data suggest that gains are possible on a large scale—not just school-by-school. It is now time to determine how the pace of improvement can be accelerated.”

The complete report is available at


National Academy of Education Launches Pre-Doctoral Fellowship Program in Adolescent Literacy


The National Academy of Education (NAEd) has created a new pre-doctoral fellowship program to support doctoral research on adolescent literacy. Launched with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the program was designed to “strengthen and stimulate adolescent literacy education by infusing the field with highly talented, well-trained, and motivated researchers and teacher educators.”

“Improving adolescents’ literacy skills will require building a robust cadre of scholars focused on these issues,” said Catherine Snow, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and chair of the pre-doctoral fellowship program’s oversight committee. “Junior scholars supported by these new funds and working with experienced mentors will take work on adolescent literacy to a new and higher level.”

The program will accept twenty individuals for two-year fellowships. Individuals who are accepted into the program will each receive a stipend of $25,000, which will be disbursed over a period of up to two years. The stipend will support them in finalizing their dissertation proposals, designing and conducting rigorous research, analyzing their data, and writing up their dissertation research results.

Fellowship applications and additional information will be available after June 1, at Applications will be accepted through December 1, 2007.


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