Philadelphia’s NAEP scores are below average for big-city districts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia students in District-run schools lag 7 to 14 percentage points behind the average for big cities in math and reading achievement in 4th and 8th grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only test that compares students across the entire country.

NAEP is considered the gold standard of standardized assessments and is the benchmark that state tests are measured against, amid complaints that some of those tests are not rigorous enough. Higher percentages of Philadelphia students score proficient on Pennsylvania’s state assessment, the PSSA. The NAEP results are potentially more reliable because they involve a sampling of students and there are no high-stakes consequences attached.

Just 19 percent of Philadelphia students scored proficient or above on 4th-grade and 8th-grade math, little change from 2011, the last time that NAEP was administered. In reading, 14 percent of 4th graders and 16 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or above. That compares to big-city averages of 33 percent proficient in 4th-grade math, 27 percent in 8th-grade math, and 23 percent in both 4th-grade and 8th-grade reading.

This is according to the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), begun in 2002 to gauge the progress made in urban districts. Now 21 districts voluntarily have their NAEP scores disaggregated and analyzed. Philadelphia began in 2009, and its results in both grades and both subjects have remained basically unchanged since.

Overall, scores in the large districts improved faster than in the nation as a whole, although they still lag behind the national average.

Philadelphia’s NAEP performance "is now and continues to be low, and they haven’t made substantial movement in the last couple of testing cycles," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. He attributed that, however, to "mitigating circumstances," especially over the last two years, including "all the upheaval that has gone on." He mentioned school closings, the lack of collective bargaining agreements with the major unions, and budget cuts. "They were going through a substantial amount of upheaval that keeps them from focusing on instructional reforms I know they want to put in place."

Casserly did point out, however, that scores did not decline this year even though Philadelphia now includes more special education students and English language learners as part of the sample than it did in 2011, the result of stricter rules on the part of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the NAEP.

Philadelphia ranks near the bottom of participating cities, along with Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Dallas and Fresno, Calif. These, for the most part, are the districts with the highest level of low-income students. In Cleveland, 100 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, one measure of poverty; Philadelphia’s rate for 4th graders is 94 percent, the same as Dallas and just above Fresno, Baltimore, and Detroit. Several other cities — notably Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, both of which have somewhat lower levels of poverty — made statistically significant gains in one or more grades and subjects.

"Seeing those results, we are flat, and that’s a place we don’t want to be and are currently aggressively thinking about how to change those results," said David Hardy, the District’s new chief of academic supports. "We realize as a District we can and will do better and we’re creating a strategy to do so." He would not offer a preview of what the strategy is. Nor would he comment on Casserly’s observation that the turmoil in the District over the last two years contributed to its inability to move forward.

In Philadelphia, females generally do better than males in reading, especially at 4th grade, but not in math. And the test-score gap beween Whites and African Americans and Latinos is smaller than that of the nation overall. But Whites in Philadelphia District-run schools score considerably lower than the large-city, Pennsylvania, or national average.

The Philadelphia results are from a sampling of District-run schools and doesn’t include charters. However, charter schools participate in NAEP, and it is possible to look at statewide NAEP charter results through the extensive interactive website run by the National Center for Education Statistics.

A quick look shows that students in charter schools in Pennsylvania on the whole score lower than those in non-charter schools, even when comparing just low-income students. But the sample size for charters is small, and the standard error for the results is much larger.

About half the charter schools in Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia, but there is no indication of how many students from city-based charters were in the statewide sample.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement on the TUDA results, calling the progress in urban areas "encouraging."

“The 2013 TUDA results show student performance in large cities continues to both improve overall and that large-city schools nationwide are improving at a faster pace than the nation as a whole. While we still have a lot of work to do to close achievement gaps in our largest cities, this progress is encouraging. It means that in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are Proficient or above in math and reading than was the case four years earlier. In particular, three districts that pressed ahead with ambitious reforms — the D.C. Public Schools System, Los Angeles, and Fresno — made notable progress since 2011.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, whose union represents mostly urban teachers, said that the results "show incremental progress despite the challenges urban schools face, but poverty and economic inequality — as economists and even the Pope have acknowledged — will stymie long-term gains unless policy makers face these issues head-on."