NAEP results from Cleveland show that achievement needle is stuck in place

The NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) results for
mathematics and reading were released last week. The TUDA results look
specifically at 21 large urban school districts that volunteered to have their
NAEP scores reported separately (three of which participated for the first
time; see the complete rundown of cities here).

The TUDA results for both reading and math in the fourth and
eighth grade followed the same trend as the national results that were released
last month: scores show little to no significant change since the last results
were issued in 2009. At the fourth-grade level average reading scores did not
significantly improve in any of the 18 participating districts. In eighth
grade, the results are almost the same, with only one district, Charlotte,
showing a significant improvement in its scores from 2009. The results in
mathematics are somewhat more encouraging. Four districts -- Atlanta, Austin,
Baltimore City, and Boston -- demonstrated higher scores than in 2009, and ever
more encouraging is the fact that, at the eighth-grade level, six districts
performed better than they did in 2009.

Cleveland, Ohio’s second-largest district, is a TUDA
participant. Kudos to the district’s leadership for their participation in this
important program as it would be easy to hide from tough data. Like most of the
other TUDA cities, Cleveland’s scores remained flat in both reading and math at
the fourth and eighth grade levels. Cleveland has been participating in the
NAEP TUDA since 2003 and results in both reading and math have not budged in
that time.

Cleveland’s results are discouraging when compared to other
large cities and to the nation. For example, 68 percent of Cleveland’s fourth
graders scored at a below basic level in reading, compared to 45 percent of
students in other large cities and 34 percent nationally. The same trend
continues when you look at math. Forty-seven percent of fourth graders in
Cleveland scored below basic proficiency, compared to 26 percent in other large
cities and 28 percent nationwide. 

These feeble results are worrisome because when Cleveland is
compared to similar large city districts (in terms of enrollment, economic
status, and demographics) it becomes even clearer that Cleveland is falling
behind. For example, take Atlanta Public Schools, a large urban district which
at first glance looks a lot like the Cleveland Metropolitan School
District.  Atlanta has 47,789 students,
101 schools, and 80 percent African American students, similar to Cleveland’s
44,362 students, 112 schools, and 69 percent African American student
population. However, the similarities stop there. In mathematics, scores in
both the fourth and eighth grade were higher than in 2009, and a significantly
lower percentage of students are at the below basic level (46 percent in 2011)
in grade eight mathematics than compared to 2003 (46 percent).

These poor results also come in the wake of more than a
decade of reform efforts in Cleveland. The city had one of the nation’s first
voucher programs, it has dozens of charter schools serving close to 15,000
children and the district has been in an almost constant state of reform since
at least the early 1990s. More recently, Cleveland launched a far-reaching
strategy to improve achievement and repair the district performance two years
ago. Included in the reform strategy is a systematic effort to identify
chronically low- performing schools and address them, while also providing more
school choice options for students in the form of alternative schools and district
sponsored charters. The district has also broken down high schools into smaller
schools focused on specific themes, and is moving forward with a rigorous
evaluation system to distinguish highly effective teachers from weaker ones.
Cleveland schools have been under mayoral control since 1998, a move intended
to get the district back on the right track both academically and financially.

Cleveland should be applauded for all of these efforts;
however, these latest NAEP results show that more needs to be done to move the
achievement needle. One could argue that maybe not enough time has passed for
these most recent reform efforts to make a difference on test scores. But,
Cleveland’s reforms as a whole over the last decade – including mayoral control
of the schools – has not moved the achievement needle one iota.  This begs the question – have Cleveland’s
reforms been too timid? Might it be time to take even bolder actions akin to a
place like New Orleans where more than 70 percent of children now attend a
charter school and results have steadily improved? Or should we allow more time
for some of the newest reforms to bite and hopefully move the needle? How much
time do we really have to play trial and error though, with stagnant
achievement and students in Cleveland falling further and further behind?

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