Cleveland's NAEP math scores draw attention to district's urgent need for reform

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) –also known as the “nation’s report card”—released district-level results last week for 18 urban districts including Cleveland. Districts participating in the voluntary Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) can compare their scores to their home state, the national average, and other urban districts.

Cleveland is among the ten established participants in TUDA (which started in 2003). Unfortunately, 2009 math results reveal that Cleveland, the district with the highest percentage of low-income families (almost 100 percent), is also the only one whose math scores in fourth and eighth grade have not budged, statistically speaking, since 2003 (see charts below). While students in cities like Boston, Atlanta, and Houston have made gains over the last six years, Cleveland’s scores remained stagnant.

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

In 2009, only eight percent of fourth graders and eight percent of eighth graders in Cleveland scored proficient or higher in math. This places Cleveland second to last in fourth grade (topping only Detroit) and fourth to last in eighth grade (ahead of Detroit, DC, and Milwaukee). (See a graph comparing the five lowest scoring cities here.) 

What does this mean in terms of real-life math skills? When asked to subtract a two-digit number from a three-digit number, less than half of Cleveland fourth graders could do so. When asked to interpret a basic algebraic expression (like 2w-3) just 29 percent of eighth graders were able to. 

That Cleveland students are in serious trouble is no surprise. Fordham’s most recent annual achievement analysis found that 71 percent of students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are enrolled in a school rated “D” or “F” by the state. According to math scores on the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) in 2009, Cleveland scores across all grades were among the lowest in the “Big 8.” However, our analysis also revealed that according to Ohio’s value-added growth measure, Cleveland students are making more progress than students in several other cities (e.g., Youngstown, Columbus, and Cincinnati). Admittedly, OAT and NAEP scores don’t always align, but if Cleveland makes more gains than other Ohio cities and still lags behind the majority of peer TUDA cities, that doesn’t bode well for how districts like Youngstown or Dayton might perform on the TUDA.

These findings should embolden district CEO Eugene Sanders, who will release his district “transformation plan” next month, to embrace bold school reforms like closing the city’s most broken schools; partnering with the city’s top charter schools and recruiting others (like KIPP) to work with the district; opening up the teacher recruitment pipeline to encourage Teach For America and The New Teacher Project to the city; and reforming the district’s personnel policies to reward performance rather than seniority.

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