WASHINGTON — Public school students in the nation’s largest cities are improving their performance in reading and math faster than their counterparts in suburban and rural schools, according to federal data released Wednesday. The biggest gains by far were in the nation’s capital.
The results from the 21 urban school districts measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “Nation’s Report Card” — show that while students in poor, urban districts still fall short of national averages, the gap has narrowed over the past decade.
But even within districts showing improvement, there remains a chasm between the best schools and the worst on their own assessments. In Washington, for instance, one public school boasts 100 percent of students meet high school math standards or exceed them; a half-mile away, another school shows 95 percent of students come up short.
The participating school districts volunteered to be part of the federal testing program, which is congressionally mandated to gauge how students are performing using a uniform measure. Participating districts must have a minority student population of at least 50 percent, and at least half of the students must be eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, a measure of poverty.
Students are tested in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades. Over the past 10 years, the gap between large cities and the nation has narrowed by roughly one-third in both grades and both subjects.
“This progress is encouraging,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “It means that in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are proficient or above in math or reading than was the case four years ago.”
The report card places student performance into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Some of the districts that have seen steady improvement — including New York and Washington — have implemented aggressive school-reform policies, including teacher evaluations based in part on classroom performance. But Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said the results should not be seen as an endorsement of any particular ideology.
“I think what it’s an endorsement of is more rigorous and more high-quality instruction in urban classrooms,” he said.
Between 2011 and 2013, the biggest gains occurred in Washington, which was the only city to improve faster than the nation in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades.
The District of Columbia also enjoyed big gains when compared to the 50 states, whose report cards were released last month. Those scores included charter schools, and while some school districts include charter schools in their urban results, Washington does not. Washington public school students achieved greater proficiency than charter school students in three of the four categories tested.
While the district’s math scores have improved steadily over the past decade, its reading scores were flat from 2007 to 2011, providing ammunition to critics of polarizing former chancellor Michelle Rhee and her mass firings of teachers for poor performance.