American Renaissance

Troubling Nonsense about Urban Schools

Chester Finn Jr., Hoover Institution,, January 29, 2004

There was good news, bad news, and troubling nonsense associated with the December 17, 2003, release of scores for ten big cities in fourth — and eighth-grade reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The good news is that major urban school systems are willingly participating in NAEP, allowing their results to be held up for public inspection, and submitting to comparisons that can be harsh as well as revealing.

The bad news is that most students in these cities’ systems performed dismally. In fourth-grade math, in only three of the ten jurisdictions did the percentage of kids scoring in NAEP’s “proficient” range rise above the teens — and in just one did it beat the national average. In eighth-grade reading, at least two-fifths of the students were “below basic” in seven cities. In the six lowest-scoring cities, the percentages of reading-proficient eighth graders were grim: Chicago 15 percent, Houston 14 percent, Atlanta 11 percent, Los Angeles 11 percent, District of Columbia 10 percent, Cleveland 10 percent.

This shows that Washington’s ambitious goal of getting every young American to the “proficient” level is akin to crossing the Grand Canyon, calling for heroic action on many fronts. Why, then, is the chairman of NAEP’s governing board saying something different? An architect of the vaunted Texas education reforms, Darvin M. Winick is known for his reformist zeal. But not this time.

First he asserted that “the perception that students in urban schools do less well than others and have poor academic performance is not supported by the 2003 NAEP results.” This is simply wrong. Their academic performance, by and large, is horrendous. And with rare exceptions, they do notably worse than the national average. Why encourage complacency in big-city school districts just when they need to struggle harder with painful reforms?

Winick turned next to the presentation of test results by race, noting (correctly) that minority youngsters “meet or exceed national averages” for students of the same race in some cities. OK, it’s good to know that urban kids do no worse than same-race children elsewhere. But then he made this regrettable assertion: “When demographics and family economics are considered, students in the participating urban districts, on the average, are not too different from other students across the nation. The common perception that students in urban public schools do not achieve is not supported by the NAEP results.”

The fact is that huge numbers of urban (and nonurban) youngsters in America are not achieving anywhere near satisfactorily — and that should be the main message. Moreover, at a time when our premier education goal is to close race-related achievement gaps, it is bizarre to settle for academic outcomes adjusted for “demographics and family economics.” Such statements imply that poor and minority kids ought not be expected to attain proficiency and that we should be content if those in our big cities do as well (that is, as poorly) as similar kids elsewhere in the land.

Troubling nonsense, indeed.