Linda Lenz, publisher

Late last year, a federal testing agency released yet another set of scores for Chicago—those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP for short. They didn’t get the media attention that the “Iowa’s” or the ISAT do. The Chicago Tribune ran a report on the front page of its Metro section, and the Sun-Times buried a short on page 12. That’s too bad because NAEP provides the best measure of how Chicago’s over-all reform efforts are doing.

First, there are no stakes attached to NAEP and, therefore, there is no incentive for anyone to cheat. Indeed, NAEP is given only to a sample of students who reflect a state’s or city’s public school enrollment, not to every student.

Second, NAEP measures high-level skills and knowledge, not just the basics.

Third, NAEP is given at the same time in the same way all across the country so that its national averages are real-time averages, not references to some prior “test-norming” year.

Finally, since 2002, the number of students tested in certain large cities, including Chicago, has been large enough to allow comparisons among districts facing similar challenges, such as high concentrations of low-income students.

Among the 10 districts included in NAEP’s 2003 urban sample, Boston is the best point of comparison for Chicago because the students tested are most similar on the major characteristics of race and ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch and parents’ educational level. (New York City is close, but the parent educational level is higher—for example, 43 percent were reported to have graduated from college, compared to 30 percent in Chicago.)

Compared with Boston, Chicago is doing very poorly by its black students. For example:

The percentage of black 4th-graders who scored “below basic,” the lowest achievement level, in math was 61 percent in Chicago but only 45 percent in Boston. For 8th-graders, the percentage of black students who scored “below basic” was 71 in Chicago and 64 in Boston.

In reading, the percentage of black 4th-graders who scored below basic was 67 percent in Chicago and 57 percent in Boston. However, for 8th-graders, the percentages were virtually identical, 48 in Chicago and 47 in Boston.

In contrast, Chicago does relatively well by its Hispanic students. For example:

The percentage of Hispanic 4th-graders who scored below basic in math was 45 percent in Chicago but 49 percent in Boston. For 8th-graders, the percentage of Hispanic students who scored below basic was 52 percent in Chicago but 62 percent in Boston.

In reading, the percentage of Hispanic 4th-graders who scored below basic was similar in the two cities—61 percent in Chicago and 58 percent in Boston. However, for 8th-graders, the percentage who scored below basic was 39 percent in Chicago but 46 percent in Boston.

Dorothy Shipps of Columbia University, an expert on the intersection of politics and education in Chicago, sees social trends at work in these numbers. For African Americans, she says, “Chicago has a lot more to overcome.” This includes extreme racial segregation that in previous decades yielded severe overcrowding and untrained teachers in black schools.The overarching problem, she says, was the refusal by the political establishment to respond to the civil rights movement. For schools, the legacy was diminished expectations for what they could do for black kids.

Boston desegregated its schools and in the process underwent tremendous upheaval. But at least its black community got official recognition of the injustice it had suffered. And in recent years, Boston’s school leadership has focused on the basics of teaching and learning, not flash-in-the-pan programs.

As for the relative educational advantage that Hispanics enjoy in Chicago, Shipps notes their higher level of political organization than in other cities.

Her observations are a reminder that, to a large extent, communities get the schools that they and their leaders demand. When it comes to the education of poor children, the pickets should never be put away.

Click on the link for the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment reports in Reading and Math.

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