Baltimore's poor African-American students are reading on average as well as their peers, whether they are in a small town in North Carolina or a city such as Chicago, according to the results of a national test released Thursday.
The results of the most rigorous and reliable assessment of reading given across the nation show that the city still faces challenges in improving its schools. The majority of fourth- and eighth-graders didn't pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which doesn't test just whether they can read, but whether they can comprehend a long passage and write a short response.
"We are primed to take the next leap into a story which is increasingly about excellence rather than a story about chasing 'good enough,' " said city schools CEO Andres Alonso.
Results of the test showed that 42 percent of the city's fourth-graders are reading at a basic, proficient or advanced level, compared with 65 percent across the nation. In eighth grade, 54 percent of students were at basic or above, compared with 73 percent in the nation.
Only 2 percent of the city's fourth-graders were considered advanced readers and none of its eighth-graders were.
Baltimore scored below the average for cities, but still beat out a number of cities with large poor and minority populations. Washington, which made some of the largest gains over 2007 and has a schools leader who has pushed cutting-edge changes, still had lower scores than Baltimore for eighth-grade reading.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, said Baltimore's results surprised him because they were better than expected.
"Given the challenges that Baltimore has, I thought their reading, like their math, was surprisingly good and formed a solid foundation," he said. "It told me something real and substantial has been going on there recently."
The city has a sound foundation in teaching reading, said its new chief academic officer, Sonja Brookins Santelises, but now it must concentrate on taking students from learning to sound out and read words to understanding the complexities of what they read.
Students, she said, should be able to make inferences, and analyze and compare what they read in books. Santelises said teachers can begin training students to ask the right questions at age 4, before they have learned to read. As she has toured the district in the past two months, she said, she finds teachers are eager to get better at their craft and to have more training.
Sean Conley, principal of Morrell Park Elementary School, said his school has focused on finding great teachers and making sure they are given expert advice on how to teach reading. He said his school has a series of safety nets for students who are struggling, including extra one-on-one instruction every day.
The release of the NAEP data comes during a week of attention on reading. The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report calling for more national focus on ensuring students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade, a pivotal point in a child's education. By fourth grade, students are expected to read well enough to learn other subjects, so those who don't learn to read by age 9, the report said, will be more likely to fall behind and fail to graduate.
"Putting a stake in the ground around third-grade reading seemed the right, the appropriate and the necessary thing to do," said Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Casey Foundation.
The Casey Foundation calls for reading to become the focus of community efforts outside of schools and emphasizes that early interventions are needed in poor children's lives and that parents should help their children learn to read.
The NAEP, also called the Nation's Report Card, has been given every two years across the nation to a sampling of students. About a decade ago, large cities agreed to give the test to a larger number of their students as a way to gauge how they compare to the nation and each other. Baltimore participated for the first time in 2009 so there is no data to show whether students have been improving in the past several years.
Compared with the other cities, Baltimore stands out for its large African-American population. Eighty-eight percent of the test-takers were black, the largest of any city, and the level of poverty also was far higher than the average. In general, cities with higher poverty rates also had lower pass rates.
Alonso said he was encouraged that Baltimore students outperformed many poor cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Washington.
In eighth-grade reading, the city did better than six of the 18 cities.
Overall, the worst scores came from students in Detroit and the best scores from Charlotte, N.C.
Alonso has said he expects the city to make progress over the next several years, just as other districts have.
At a news conference in Atlanta held to release the results, Casserly praised
Atlanta and New York, two cities he said have shown sustained progress over a long period. "Both have wise and creative leaders who have been at the helm for many years," he said.
When the data are broken down, Baltimore's poor African-American population scored the same as Atlanta's and below New York's.