L.A. students’ math rises, reading stalls

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Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Math scores continued to rise in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but reading is showing no improvement with fourth-graders ranking among the lowest among urban districts, according to a federal report released Thursday.

Every two years, 11 urban districts, including Los Angeles, test their fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading. The outcome of these tests, known as the Trial Urban District Assessment Results, are part of the National Assessment of Education Progress -- commonly called “the nation’s report card.”

School district officials and administrators caution that comparing results can be tricky: California tends to include more special education and limited English-speaking students. Houston and Austin schools exclude most of those students.


But the results provide a look into the achievement in the nation’s urban schools.

And they echoed some of the concerns from the nationwide assessment, the results of which were released in September: While math scores rise, reading progress is mixed and the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino counterparts remains wide.

“The fact that the gap is not narrowing is quite troubling,” said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley.

“The dirty little secret is California has mounted multimillion-dollar efforts to narrow the achievement gap and we have done little to do so.”

California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell held a summit on the issue this week in an attempt to bring together experts to help determine how best to attack the problem.

In most instances, white and Asian students at Los Angeles Unified School District schools are on par with their counterparts in urban districts elsewhere. Those scores were often higher than the nation’s average for all students.

L.A. Unified’s black and Latino students, however, are not only 30 points or more below the nation’s average scores, but also much lower than the average for their peers in the other cities, leaving L.A. Unified with a much wider achievement gap than the national average.


Of the 11 districts tested, only Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, are above the nation’s average. But even in the below-average districts, “in some cases the gains are greater than the nation as a whole, which means that achievement gaps are closing,” said Robin C. Hall, principal of an Atlanta elementary school and a NAEP board member.

That’s not the case for L.A. students. Scores in LAUSD mainly stayed the same across the board. The exception was for eighth-grade math; those scores are improving more quickly in Los Angeles Unified than in the nation and in California.

“As child poverty has increased under the Bush administration policies, and as cities have become more diverse, the fact that their test scores are not declining is encouraging,” Fuller said.

L.A. Unified fourth-graders performed the worst of the 11 urban districts in reading, with 61% scoring below basic level, the same as District of Columbia and Atlanta.

Eighth-grade reading went up between 2002 and the latest results but had no significant change since 2005. There, the district stayed below the large-city average, with 50% testing below the basic level in reading.

In math, things were better. Scores for fourth-grade math rose from 2003 to 2007, but showed no change from 2005. The school system still remains below the large-city average, with 40% testing below “basic” in fourth-grade math.


For eighth-graders, scores in math went up from 2003 to 2007 and dramatically improved from 2005 to 2007. The scores were still below the urban average, with 55% testing the below basic level for eighth-grade math. Even with that, their scores are climbing faster than California’s and the nation’s, closing that gap somewhat.

Although the results paint a gloomy picture, a top administrator for L.A. Unified said the latest results were no cause for shame.

“None of the urban school districts have changed their position in the rankings,” said Julie Slayton, the executive director for the Office of Strategic Planning and Accountability. “We have in fact made gains. What the NAEP results demonstrate is the approach we’ve taken in our elementary schools, especially with language arts, has had positive results over time overall and in particular with English learners.”

An internal report to the Los Angeles Board of Education accentuated the positive, noting “LAUSD made substantial gains in grades 4 and 8 reading and mathematics over previous years. . . . In mathematics, both grade 4 and 8 students were advancing and appeared to be narrowing the achievement gap between white and black and Hispanic students.”

Slayton, and others, said it’s unfair to make direct comparisons with other school systems unless the district’s student population is considered.

“Los Angeles is different demographically even from the other cities,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “When it comes to poverty and English learners, Los Angeles has unusually high rates of both in ways that really exceed the other participating districts.”


The NAEP assessments began in 1998, and the U.S. Education Department began using them as a tool to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind school reform after its enactment in 2002. The law emphasizes annual testing to ensure that by 2014 all students achieve a specified level of proficiency in math and reading.


Times staff writer Howard Blume in Los Angeles contributed to this report.