L.A., San Diego Pupils Improve in Math
Scores rise sharply, but the students are still far behind nationally. Los Angeles fourth-graders also gain in reading comprehension.

By Duke Helfand
LA Times Staff Writer
December 2, 2005

Students in California's two largest school districts showed marked improvement in math over the last two years but still trailed well behind their peers nationally in knowledge of algebra, geometry and other essential skills, according to a federal study released Thursday.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress offered a mixed report on the math and reading abilities of fourth- and eighth-graders in Los Angeles, San Diego and some of the nation's other large cities.

Although math was a bright spot among the California students, middle school reading achievement offered small cause for celebration.

Eighth-graders in San Diego, New York, Chicago, Houston and other cities showed little or no progress in reading in the two years. But L.A.'s fourth-graders countered that trend: They were among students in a handful of districts that showed significant gains in their reading comprehension skills since 2002.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials said those reading results reflected an emphasis on scripted phonics lessons, regular student assessments and teacher coaching - all meant to support instructors of the most challenging students, including those who speak English as a second language.

The officials also chalked up their math gains partly to greater teacher training. "We need to be encouraged by the progress we are making, but we still have a lot of work to go," said Supt. Roy Romer. "We're showing growth, and it's very good news."

The evaluation, "the nation's report card," examined math and reading performance in 11 urban districts that serve higher percentages of minority and low-income students than schools nationwide. Some of the data go back to 2002, others only to 2003.

The math tests assessed algebra, geometry, measurement, data analysis and other skills. The English exams included reading comprehension based on short stories, magazine articles and biographies.

The study ranked student performance at four achievement levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.

Among the findings:

• Several districts showed significant progress in math since 2003. Still, students in nine of the 11 fell below national levels in 2005. Only Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, outperformed schools nationally. In L.A., 62% of eighth-graders were below the basic level in math; the figure in San Diego was 39%.

• Nearly half of fourth-graders in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta fell below the basic level in reading.

• Wide achievement gaps between white students and their Latino and black peers persisted, and in some cases widened, over the last three years.

• High levels of poverty were closely linked to low achievement. In Cleveland, where 100% of students qualified for federally subsidized lunches, only 13% of fourth-graders were proficient or above in math in 2005. Just 6% of Cleveland eighth-graders reached that level.

New York appeared an exception. Most of its students come from low-income households, but relatively high percentages were proficient or above in reading and math - which officials attributed at least in part to the mayoral oversight of the school district that began in 2002.

"Mayoral control did two critical things," said New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. "It enabled the mayor to say to the entire city and school system ... 'You know whom to hold accountable.' It [enabled us] to break through the politics of paralysis and make real reforms."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for a takeover of district schools, saying he believes that the school board and the teachers union are standing in the way of reform.

Despite the improving picture of math achievement in Los Angeles and San Diego, students have a long way to go.

Only 18% of L.A.'s fourth-graders were proficient or better in math this year, up from 13% two years ago. In San Diego, 29% of fourth-graders reached the proficiency level or better, a rise from 20% in 2003. Nationally, 35% of fourth-graders were proficient or better this year, up from 31% two years ago.

The math and reading results put L.A. roughly in the bottom third of the 11 districts and San Diego in the middle. Officials in the two districts and administrators of the national assessment voiced caution about over-interpreting the results because of differences in the testing pools of students.

Houston and Austin schools excluded large numbers of special education students and others still learning English. That, critics said, artificially inflated their results, making it hard to gain a true comparison with districts such as L.A.'s and San Diego's that tested most of their students with special needs.

"It's misleading," said Peter Bell of the San Diego district. "It's hard to draw conclusions without more analysis."

Still, educators said the data offered a valuable glimpse into the shortcomings of the nation's large urban school districts.

"These numbers represent the broken futures of millions of children," said Ross Wiener of the Education Trust, a Washington organization. "As heartbreaking as some of these numbers are, we are better served by knowing the extent of the challenge in our big cities."