Baltimore's students scored better than expected on a rigorous national math test that compared their achievement to students in other large, urban school districts, indicating that a decade of reform may have helped lift the city's once-troubled schools.

The city took a chance when it volunteered to be one of the 18 school districts where the National Assessment of Educational Progress is given to measure urban school performance. A bad result could have deflated the good news the district has touted recently on the easier state tests and reduced the power of leaders to continue to push for radical changes.

So on Tuesday, schools chief Andr?s Alonso said bluntly: "This was a leap of faith. I am incredibly relieved."

Some critics still found the results alarming, but in a city where leaders had sometimes wondered whether Baltimore might have the worst-performing school system in the nation, the answer is no.

In fact, the city's fourth-graders scored in the middle of the pack, above those in nine cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Fresno, Calif.

Eighth-graders did not do as well on the test, but they ranked above three other school districts, and the school system pointed out that eighth-grade math scores have been a problem area for years. In addition, when compared with the other 17 school districts, Baltimore has the highest percentage of black students (91 percent of eighth-graders) and a high percentage of poor students.

When the performance of black students from low-income families in Baltimore is compared with that of their peers across the nation, it is about the same.

"Contrary to what many have thought about where we ranked in the national conversation about our schools, we are very much in the game in terms of big cities struggling to address huge problems of communities and education," Alonso said.

The results also showed that special-

education students are doing far better in Baltimore, where a lawsuit brought more than a decade of federal court oversight. In Baltimore, the gap between the achievement of special-education students and regular students was the lowest among the 18 cities and was nearly half the national average.

Overall, though, the results were still poor. Sixty-four percent of fourth-graders scored at the basic, proficient or advanced level. And only 43 percent of eighth-graders had achievement in that range. In addition, the math achievement was significantly below state and national levels. The results for reading will not be released until spring.

Matthew Joseph, executive director of the local nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, said the public should dig deeper into the numbers and focus on the percentage of students who score in the proficient and advanced range. He said students who score at the basic level should not be considered to have passed the test. When looked at under that lens, he said, Baltimore is among the lowest performers in the nation.

He applauded the city for volunteering to be part of the testing program because it gives the public a much clearer idea of how well the schools are doing than do the state tests.

But he added, "These results are a sobering reminder that Baltimore has a long way to go before we can say that [our] students are getting the skills they need to be competitive in an increasingly tough economy."

Alonso acknowledged that hard work still must be done to improve teaching in the city. The test results can be used to help the city rewrite its curriculum to make students more competitive nationally. But, he said, the results show that changes made in the past two and a half years are working.

"We should feel strong about our direction," he said.

Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Education to give the NAEP test every two years to elementary and secondary schools. The test has been given periodically since 1969, and more often in recent years. It is the only national test that allows comparisons to be made between states and since 2003 between large urban school districts.

The results released Tuesday were the first time the city has been able to compare itself with other cities across the nation.

Among cities that have given the NAEP test since 2003, most have increased scores significantly. Overall, the results have shown that many large urban systems are making significant progress. The 2009 results, however, showed that scores were up only 2 percentage points in most districts, not enough to be considered statistically significant.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, said the stagnation is a puzzle. "In a number of cities that have pursued reforms over the years, we will often get substantial increases," he said. Those large increases have not continued, however.

The school district that made the most progress between 2007 and 2009 was the District of Columbia's, which has made major changes to its system. Detroit's results, the worst in the nation, were so bad that education leaders pointedly said at a news conference Tuesday in Washington that the city must take action quickly.

"We were rather encouraged by the Baltimore numbers in general," Casserly said. "They are low, but not as low as they might have been, particularly for a district that is taking it for the first time. While there isn't an empirical trend line, I have to wonder if they would be as high as they are if [Alonso] hadn't pursued some tough reforms."


Chart of math achievement on NAEP test PG 14

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