Three of California’s largest school districts showed gains on a national assessment of urban districts that also singled out Los Angeles and Fresno Unified for special recognition from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
L.A., Fresno and San Diego Unified were among 21 districts across the country that participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment, known as TUDA, which is based on scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test often referred to as the nation’s report card. No other California districts participated.
Los Angeles had been steadily but slowly progressing since it joined the voluntary urban district testing program in 2003, but scores rose significantly this year over 2011, when the test was last administered. Only Washington, D.C., showed greater improvement.
Gains beat nation
Across the three districts, students made larger gains than the national average and bested the state in nearly every category.
In a statement, Secretary Duncan cited Los Angeles and Fresno Unified among three TUDA districts – D.C. Public Schools is the other – “that pressed ahead of ambitious reforms” and “made notable progress since 2011.”
In Los Angeles, fourth and eighth grade students boosted their average reading scores by 4 points each. In math, while eighth graders showed no statistically significant increases, fourth graders gained five points overall in improvements that crossed racial, ethnic and income levels. Hispanic fourth grade students went up by 4 points, while African-American students showed an 8-point jump in two years.
The results caught LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy off guard.
“I don’t normally become extremely pleased, but I am extremely pleased, it’s really quite something,” Deasy said. “I think the reforms that we’re doing in Los Angeles are clearly paying off.”
The district has implemented programs targeted at improving algebra instruction in middle and high schools and providing extra support for African-American, Latino and low-income students. The district has also stepped up professional development for teachers and staff.
Other successful changes in Los Angeles focus on student health and well-being. Fourth grade teacher Shannon Garrison credited the district’s breakfast in the classroom program with giving all students, but especially those living in poverty, the nourishment they need to focus in class.
“I can see a huge difference for some of my students who maybe don’t eat well in the morning, or maybe only have a couple of meals a day, just as far as their attention, their ability to engage in work,” Garrison said. “They’re not worried about being hungry.”
She is one of the three classroom teachers on the governing board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which is given to a representative sample of fourth, eighth and twelfth grade students. In the most recent NAEP results, released last month, California was well below the national average for all grades and areas except for eighth grade reading, which rose by 8 points, the largest gain in the country.
‘Good day’ in Fresno
TUDA results are taken from the NAEP scores; no additional testing is involved. Participation is voluntary, but districts do have to meet certain eligibility criteria. At least half of district students must be ethnic or racial minorities and half must be eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Districts must also be located in cities with a population of 250,000 or more and have a minimum of about 1,500 students in fourth and eighth grade math and reading classes.
The purpose of pulling out NAEP data for large urban schools districts is to demonstrate that these districts are “committed to the highest academic standards,” said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which partners with the U.S. Department of Education on TUDA. Casserly, who pressed for the program, also said there’s greater benefit for districts to assess their progress and reform efforts through comparisons with districts that share their demographics and challenges.
“It’s for me, the first time that I’ve been really glad I put us in TUDA,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Mike Hanson, whose district started participating in the 11-year-old program in 2009. “I would call it a good day,” he added.
Fresno’s eighth grade students gained 7 points in reading, the second highest among TUDA districts, and four points in eighth grade math, which Hanson attributes, in part, to the pre-advanced placement work under way in the district to increase the number of students taking the higher level course when they get to high school.
He also feels somewhat vindicated about Fresno being on the right track following its two-point drop on the Academic Performance Index this year, the first drop in years, mirroring the statewide decline on the index that tracks student scores on standardized tests. If the district had fallen on TUDA as well, that would have signaled a big problem, said Hanson, who views TUDA as a better indicator than the API of how well the district is doing.
Unlike the statewide data from the regular NAEP exam, with TUDA Hanson can tell whether district reforms are working and can identify and contact other urban districts around the country to exchange ideas.
Racial gaps remain
TUDA also shines a spotlight on areas that need improvement and this year, as with most others, despite the increases in scores among racial and ethnic minority students and poor children, the gap in test scores along racial lines shows nearly no movement.
In Fresno, for example, white eighth graders scored more than 20 points higher on average than black and Hispanic students in math. The comparable difference in L.A. Unified was 40 points. The gap with San Diego’s low-income students widened in some areas, although going into the assessment, San Diego’s scores were already higher than those in Los Angeles and Fresno.
“Certainly there is disappointment that we had not done more to close those achievement gaps,” said Ron Rode, San Diego Unified’s executive director of accountability.
Rode said the new superintendent, Cindy Marten, is doubling down efforts to improve teaching and learning through half-day site visits to schools with an instructional team.
San Diego students overall improved their scores between one and four points in all grades and subjects with the exception of eighth grade math, where results dropped by a point. However, the district is still above Fresno, Los Angles and the state in proficiency rates.
TUDA has an interactive website that allows people to plug in different grades, subject and students groups and to show comparisons between districts and states, other TUDA districts and the country.
Overall, California’s participating districts did well, Casserly said. California would not have shown the increase in reading on the regular NAEP exam with the districts’ improvements, he said.
“The results give us confidence that urban education can and is being improved across the country,” Casserly said.