Nation's Report Card Shows Improvement, But Race Still Divides

Cities across the country are receiving the latest numbers on how well their 4th and 8th graders are doing in reading and math. Results are positive, but there's only been incremental changes when it comes to race, gender, and income gaps. Host Michel Martin finds out more.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Congress has finally reached a deal on the budget, but it does not include extending federal benefits for the long-term unemployed. We wanted to find out what that means for Americans. And we'll talk about that later in the program. But first, we want to talk about education. Now this is the time of year when many students are getting their first report cards of the year.

Well, there's also one for school districts. Twenty-one of this country's biggest urban school districts got their grades yesterday in a study called the Nation's Report Card. That's a report put out by the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. That's the research wing of the Department of Education. For the past 10 years, this group has looked at how big city students do in reading and math. And the initial reports are that this is good news because fourth and eighth graders in 21 cities are performing significantly better than they did a decade ago. We wanted to dig into that, so we are fortunate to have with us the leaders of two of the nation's largest school districts. Alberto Carvalho is the superintendent for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, with us from member station WLRN. Mr. Carvalho, thank you so much for joining us once again. Welcome back.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer for Houston Independent School District, with us from Houston. Mr. Gohl, thank you so much for joining us once again.

DANIEL GOHL: Hello, Michel. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And back with us for additional perspective in our Washington bureau, NPR educational correspondent, Claudio Sanchez. And, Claudio, I'm going to start with you. Thank you so much for joining us once again. You've spoken with education experts about this. Are they generally seeing this report as good news and why?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Well, all the people I talked to have - I asked them, you know, what kind of headline they'd give this report. And half said things are terrible, and the other half said things are great. And there is...

MARTIN: That's a pretty wide range of opinion.

SANCHEZ: Both are accurate, Michel, because, you know, you look at the fact that between 2003 and 2013, large city schools improved their fourth grade reading performance, narrowing the gap between urban schools in the nation by 32 percent - 32 percent. Eighth-grade level, the gap narrowed by 34 percent. Then there was a whopping narrowing of the gap by 38 percent among eighth graders. They closed the gap with the rest of the nation. So this is a lot to celebrate.

Nobody takes that away from them. The bad news is that kids in these cities, all of these cities, are really struggling. I mean, they're still - you still have these enormous gaps certainly between black and white, between rich and poor. And so you still have many, many kids - for example, only 12 percent overall of these cities - 12 percent of black kids in all these cities are able to read or able to do math.

MARTIN: What about Latino kids?

SANCHEZ: Latino kids, especially - and you'll hear this, perhaps, from our guest from Houston - Latino kids are actually doing better. But again, you still - you can't miss the fact that so few kids are reading at grade level, doing math at grade level. And I think that that certainly taints what would otherwise be a really positive report.

MARTIN: Superintendent Carvalho, let's go to you. And we had you on - if I can remind people of this. You spoke with us, specifically, for a special program about education last year. And you talked a lot about how the efforts that you've made in Miami-Dade. The report says no significant changes in reading and math for fourth and eighth graders over the last two years. You know, your thoughts about the report overall and whether you see it primarily as a glass half-full or glass half-empty.

CARVALHO: I think it's a combination. I think Claudio's absolutely right. Let's look at student achievement, particularly in large cities, from two perspectives - both equally important. Number one is learning gains. So the growth that students have demonstrated over time. Secondly, proficiency. So in terms of percentage of all students, what percentage of these students, particularly in large urban centers - African-American, black kids and Latino kids, Hispanic kids and poor children - how are they performing in terms of a snapshot examination of proficiency in reading and math? And if you ask those two questions, you get two different answers.

In terms of learning gains, meaning progress over time, it is actually remarkable, as Claudio said, that the gap has been narrowed. However, when you look at it as a static snapshot examination of the percentage of students who are demonstrating proficiency at the basic or advanced level according to NAEP, then it is disappointing. There's still a lot of work to be done. Now speaking specifically from Miami-Dade's perspective - and much like Houston, we are a minority-majority district where 64-65 percent of the students are Hispanic and the remaining are black students.

We actually demonstrated better than large city performance across the country, according to NAEP, both particularly in fourth and eighth-grade level, particularly for poor kids, particularly for black and Hispanics. So we are not only outperforming NAEP overall, but we are outperforming the vast majority of large cities in the areas tested.

MARTIN: Daniel Gohl, you're new to the job of chief academic officer. I do want to point that out. But how do you read this report? And then talk about it overall, if you would, and then talk about the situation in Houston.

GOHL: So thank you. Yes, I am. I've been here since middle of September. My initial read is that we as a country still have a long way to go if we're going to have students at the advanced and proficient levels - that basic is not sufficient. And we need not focus on how many we've removed from advanced basic, but how many of our students overall are moving up. And from there, I'm going to talk about that the ethnic breakdowns are really important, but we now have the tools and are beginning to put in place the ability to track each kid. NAEP will never give us those results. That's not its intent.

But we do need, in these aggregations of large urban or ethnicities, to be able to realize that there's an individual story amongst every kid that's measured by these. And that's the perspective that I'm bringing to Houston. And our superintendent has really pushed that. We can't be satisfied with where we are. We are above the national average in mathematics for every ethnic breakdown.

MARTIN: Can I...

GOHL: We're above...

MARTIN: Can...

GOHL: Please.

MARTIN: Can I talk a little bit about the ethnicity piece that each of you...

GOHL: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Have raised and I raised. And it's also sort of part of the report. Is this a matter of ethnicity, or is this a matter of income and the advantages that flow to income? I mean, just looking at the Miami-Dade report for eighth-grade math, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, which indicates lower income, scored 25 percents lower - 25 points lower than those who were not eligible. And this gap is wider than it was in 2009. So that's just talking about Miami-Dade. So I don't know. Claudio, do you want to pick up the thread here? What do you think is the core issue there? Is ethnicity really the critical piece, or is it, you know, resources?

SANCHEZ: My personal view is that it's - it is resources. It is often an issue of class. I think that NAEP figures and the breakdown show that kids who are wealthy - even in cities like Washington, D.C., where the scores are still very low overall - kids with, you know - from affluent families do a lot better. And so that's really the big elephant in the room. I think people really, really are careful to talk about how poverty should not be an excuse.

But the bottom line is that schools can't control for poverty. Schools can't control whether a kid is poor not. All they can do is say, we're going to try and create expectations so that poor kids can reach and achieve. That's a tough job, let alone the fact that these kids are coming from very impoverished backgrounds. And I think that that clearly has an impact on their ability to reach that expectation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're looking at scores from the Nation's Report Card. That's a report issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. That's the research wing of the Department of Education. We're talking about this with NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez - that's who was speaking just now - also, Houston's chief academic officer, Daniel Gohl and the superintendent for Miami-Dade County public schools, Alberto Carvalho. They're two of the country's largest urban school districts. Daniel Gohl, do you - how do you use a report like this?

GOHL: It drives conversations, professional development and hiring practices. I want to echo what our colleagues have said concerning poverty, but this is measuring performance at fourth grade. And we as educators need to own that - regardless of where a student comes to us at grade kindergarten - that we've had them for four and a half years by the time they take an assessment like NAEP. And we cross reference NAEP results with - here in Texas, our STAAR test, and we compare our curriculum against what the expectations are. On a test like NAEP - it's another set of data. But it's about acknowledging we have not done teaching well enough to achieve proficiency. And that we then need to re-teach and re-engage. And we can't do that minute for minute. We've somehow got to accelerate performance against time because otherwise, these students will be in perpetual deficit. And that is not an acceptable approach.

MARTIN: Superintendent Carvalho?

CARVALHO: I want to re-visit the issue of poverty...

MARTIN: Please.

CARVALHO: ...Because I believe, as Claudio said - I mean, it is often avoided. And it is often seen - if somebody mentions it - as advancing an excuse. But trust me, the one clear unifying factor, regardless - that supersedes ethnicity is class, is poverty. The data is very clear for Miami-Dade and for the nation as a whole. Even in more affluent districts in America - that the biggest separating divide between those that perform better and those who did not is the issue of poverty. So we need to acknowledge that - not as an excuse, but as a reality that we need to consider. With that said, I agree with - with previous opinions that have already been expressed on this show - that, you know, the issue of teacher and leader effectiveness - not just qualification, but effectiveness - are key.

And that's been the driving force of the reform in Miami-Dade.

And we use - and second to that, obviously, the wraparound services in communities, which are specifically geared to address the issue of poverty. So can we provide safety nets and wraparound services that compensate and accelerate learning in light or notwithstanding poverty conditions? And we've done that though the intervention of entities like City Year and Diplomas Now and Communities In Schools and many others. The question of how do you use NAEP - well, NAEP, in Miami-Dade, is used to the extent that it adds to the triangulation of data resources that we use to inform the instructional practice. We don't...

MARTIN: Could you translate that for me, please?

CARVALHO: Sure. I mean, yeah. It's just one more data point. And it's a data point that's really not that specific as it relates to the Sunshine State's Standards - or now with the implementation in the majority of states across America.

MARTIN: I think what you're telling me - it's not that important.

CARVALHO: It's important. It's one more data point. But it is not the data point that we use to inform instructional practice in our schools. We have more sophisticated, more usable data points like our own Sunshine State Standards, the state data, like advanced academics - so performance in SAT, ACT, and...

MARTIN: OK.

CARVALHO: ...Advanced placement.

MARTIN: Superintendent, forgive me. We need to take a short break. But when we come back...

CARVALHO: Sure.

MARTIN: ...We'll pick up that thread. I do want to hear, again, like, how you use data like this. And are there any decisions that are informed by this going forward? We're talking with the latest results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It's called the Nation's Report Card. I'm speaking with NPR educational correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Also with us, the leaders of two of the country's biggest urban school districts - Alberto Carvalho, superintendent for Miami-Dade schools and Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer for Houston Independent School District.

When we come back, we'll take a closer look at the things we've been talking about. And I'll also talk about why the racial achievement gap continues to be so wide. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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