NAEP reading results: Losing LeBron isn't Cleveland's biggest problem

Eric Ulas

Reading scores for Cleveland’s fourth and eighth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) aren’t much better than the math results from last December. There are several ways to summarize the results; unfortunately most are discouraging for Ohio’s only TUDA-participating city.

Cleveland’s results versus:

  • All large US cities: Cleveland ranks among six others whose fourth and eighth graders scored lower than students in large US cities on the 2009 reading test.
  • Other TUDA cities: The average score for Cleveland fourth graders is second to lowest, next to Detroit. (This happened in math, too.) Cleveland eighth graders did slightly better, ranking above Detroit, DC, Fresno, and Milwaukee, but still fell into the bottom-most rung of those cities scoring below the large city average.
  • Cleveland’s previous progress: Among the 11 districts that have participated in TUDA since 2002, Cleveland is one of the few whose scores have not budged at all (in a statistically significant way) in either grade. These stagnant scores mirror what is happening statewide (according to Ohio’s 2009 NAEP scores), but this is still bad news, especially considering that several TUDA-participating cities have experienced significant growth over the decade.

The following graphs compare Cleveland’s TUDA reading results with the district’s Ohio Achievement Test results, and contrast Cleveland’s TUDA results with those of other large cities, Ohio, and the national average.

Source: The Nation’s Report Card: Trial Urban District Assessment Reading 2009

Source: The Nation’s Report Card: Trial Urban District Assessment Reading 2009

The graphs illustrate two important points. First, while it’s obvious according to state tests that Cleveland students are underperforming, the landscape becomes much bleaker when ones looks at the NAEP scores (unfortunately for Cleveland, these are a more reliable metrics). A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (reviewed below) reminds us that how well children read by the end of third grade predicts how well they will do later in life. This is terrible news for Cleveland, where 66 percent of Cleveland fourth graders fail to achieve even a basic level of proficiency.

Second, Cleveland students grossly underperform when compared to the rest of the Buckeye State and other large US cities. Cleveland realizes it has a problem. District CEO Eugene Sanders plans to implement a district transformation plan to dramatically improve student achievement, shutter or relocate low-performing schools, and raise graduation rates. But the city faces the brutal challenge of trying to pay for this plan (it has a price tag o$70 million over three years) while reducing a $53 million budget deficit and laying off 545 teachers.

But while lots of US cities are facing similar challenges -- not all of their schools are languishing as badly. DC, for example, has experienced growth in both reading and math over the last several years. Several others have achieved growth in fourth or eighth grades and in one or both subjects.

District leaders and Ohio lawmakers should take this data seriously, as students’ reading proficiency in Cleveland is alarmingly low. But if Cleveland’s bottom-tier performance ranking can’t inspire hope, the experience of other cities might.

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