WASHINGTON -- Students in city schools are improving their addition, subtraction and higher math skills from the first grade up, but it's not so clear how much better their reading skills are, a study of the nation's 55 largest urban districts found.
The study, released Tuesday by the Council of the Great City Schools, reflects national trends that show American students' overall math scores improving over the past decade, while reading scores have gone largely unchanged.
''We're encouraged that so many cities are showing improvement across so many grades, and that so many grades are improving,'' said Mike Casserly, executive director for the group.
Urban students' test scores remain below the national average, but researchers found that 52 districts raised math scores on state tests in more than half the grades tested. They also found that students in 23 urban districts raised their math scores faster than at least half of the students tested elsewhere in their states.
Two other Great City Schools studies, released earlier this year, showed sharp improvements in urban students' ACT college-entrance exam math scores between 1990 and 1999, and math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which rose between 1992 and 1996.
The NAEP, given in fourth and eighth grades, is often called the ''nation's report card,'' because it is given annually to students in about 40 states.
In the new study, researchers said, jumps in students' math scores on state tests from 1995 to 2000 were supported by rising NAEP scores. But they said state reading scores, which rose modestly at several levels, were not matched by rising NAEP scores, casting doubts on the data.
''We are very confident about the math gains in the cities that we are seeing,'' Casserly said. ''We are somewhat more cautious about the reading gains, but the state assessments do show them.''
Casserly said cities made the gains although, according to government figures, urban school districts in the 1998-99 school year spent less per-pupil than the average school district, reversing a 20-year trend.
According to the U.S. Education Department, the per-pupil average for all expenditures was $6,189. In urban schools, the figure was $6,175.
The study found gaps in math and reading between students in different ethnic groups may be shrinking in some city schools.
Eric J. Smith, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, said his students have made significant gains since 1995, including nearly doubling the number of black third-graders reading on grade level.
Smith also said the district was giving four times as many advanced-placement exams as it was five years ago.
''The kind of gains that we've seen in the last five years we'll be able to continue,'' he said.
Smith said many of the improvements were due to more local and more equitable funding and to ''the establishment of extraordinarily high standards'' by school officials.
In 55 percent of the cities studied, fourth-grade classes narrowed the achievement gap between white and black students in math, while 48 percent of eighth-grades reduced the gap. Forty-seven percent of 10th grade classes narrowed the gap. Similar figures were reported for gaps between white and Hispanic students.
In reading, 68 percent of fourth-grade classes narrowed the achievement gap between white and black students, while 67 percent of eighth-grades narrowed the ethnic gap.
But the study showed that, in 2000, eight urban school districts had average math scores for at least half of grades tested that were the same as or higher than the average score for their state.
These districts: Albuquerque, N.M.; Broward County, Fla., which includes Fort Lauderdale; Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Orange County, Fla., which includes Orlando; Portland, Ore.; San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
Three of those -- Albuquerque, Hillsborough and San Francisco -- had higher-than-average scores in all grades, the report said.
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