12/07/2011 09:59 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

City-Level National Tests Show Slight Math Growth, No Change In Reading

The report card on America's urban schools is in, and the grades aren't good.

On Wednesday the U.S. Department of Education released the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress's Trial Urban District Assessment, a low-stakes test administered by the research arm of that agency.

The data, which looked at 21 urban school districts, shows that urban education still lags behind the country's suburban and rural schools, and that while cities gained a bit of ground on math, reading scores were stagnant. And where cities increased their scores, high-income students did the heavy lifting.

"There's nobody who's performing at advanced levels," said Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, who previously administered the test at the Department of Education. "This is just really, really, really depressing."

According to the results of urban assessment test, performance on fourth-grade reading increased significantly in most cities between 2002-2011. But no city saw major gains in the last two years, and only Charlotte showed a statistically significant increase in eighth-grade reading.

EXPLORE the scores for yourself:

In math, average fourth-grade scores in four districts increased over the last two years. Eighth graders in six districts showed higher average scores than their predecessors in 2009. Nine of the 10 districts that had opted into the program during its first administration in 2003 scored higher in math at both grade levels.

"If you look at the trends since 2003, it paints a clear picture about the progress that has emerged in the large cities since that time," said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which helps administer the test. "We've been able to close the gap between us and the nation by between 25 percent and 36 percent in those eight years. It says to us that many urban school districts in aggregate appear to be moving in the right direction."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's reaction was more tempered than Casserly's. "Today’s results show that our nation’s large urban districts continue to make progress in mathematics. Like the rest of the nation, however, reading achievement has leveled off in urban areas," Duncan said in a statement. He used the data -- especially the scores since he took office in 2009 -- to plug Race to the Top and other government programs.

But academics urged caution. While NAEP scores are widely cited, score changes over time can be a reflection of trends outside the classroom, such as changing demographics, attrition, measurement error, and changes in circumstances including the effects of the recession. It is also important to bear in mind that NAEP does not track individual students.

Beyond the big picture, it is likely that this performance data will be used to judge officials, especially in cities such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Detroit that have taken on headline-grabbing reform plans.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted attention by beginning to tie teacher evaluations to test scores and closing low-performing schools. Despite these aggressive reforms, the city fell midpack, with 24 percent of fourth graders performing below basic on math and 35 percent of eighth graders performing below basic on reading. And over the last four years, the city's average score on eighth-grade math decreased by one point.

"In New York eighth-grade math, 41 percent of students are below basic," Schneider said. "What kind of success is that? It could be worse, you could be Detroit."

Detroit began administering NAEP in 2009, yielding only two data points. Though the scores left the Motor City at the bottom of the barrel, with 71 percent of eighth-grade students performing below basic on math, the overall increase gave the city hope.

Washington, D.C., was the scene to highly-publicized changes Michelle Rhee made while at the helm from 2007 to 2010. Beyond restructuring, she implemented a new teacher evaluation and salary system. Now, Rhee runs StudentsFirst, a group that aims to spread those changes.

In 2009, the NAEP reports began to exclude charter schools, leaving the most recent data the only results that isolate performance within D.C. Public Schools. Performance between 2009-2011 was mixed, with increases on math scores, but not reading:

Schneider was nonchalant. "DC made some gains in a couple of places, but I don't think there's any big success story here," he said.

Timothy Shanahan, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said, Rhee's detractors will find something to dislike regardless of the scores. "Most of my colleagues think that Rhee's approach was crazy. ... If some of those scores went down, they'd be sure to claim she was doing things that were wrong," he said. "But you have to be more careful."

Meanwhile, Atlanta's scores are bound to turn heads. Atlanta's schools are best known for a recent cheating scandal of historic proportions. But Atlanta's NAEP results show large gains over the last decade.

And unlike other cities, low-income students appear to move as quickly as their more affluent peers. While cheating was only found to occur in some schools, NAEP is administered to a representative sample. "There was cheating by some teachers on the state tests but at the same time, what you saw by way of reform in the school district was real," Casserly said.

While Atlanta may have been a bright spot, Schneider said overall, "There's not a lot of joy here."

Graphics by Chris Spurlock

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed remarks by Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The remarks have been replaced with a statement given by Duncan.