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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

We're used to dismal numbers when it comes to American kids and test scores. But today, some good news. NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reports that fourth and eighth graders in 21 cities are performing significantly better than they did a decade ago. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Yes, the gains in math and reading scores in big city school districts are impressive, says Michael Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools.

MICHAEL CASSERLY: Between 2003 and 2013, the large city schools improved their fourth grade reading performance on NAEP and narrowed the gap between our schools and the nation by 32 percent. At the eighth grade level, we have narrowed the gap with the nation by 34 percent.

SANCHEZ: Overall, the gains in urban school scores have been larger than the gains we've seen as a nation over the last decade. One big reason, many big city school districts have raised standards, provided more help to struggling students and improved teacher training. Casserly cited eight cities in particular for raising kids' performance.

CASSERLY: The District of Columbia Public Schools improved in all four grade and subject combinations, the only city to accomplish this. Los Angeles improved in three of four. Fresno improved in two. And Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago and Dallas improved in one.

SANCHEZ: And that's worth celebrating, says Casserly, because big city schools face a tougher job with large concentrations of children living in poverty. Some education experts, though, say the results give us little to cheer about.

ANDY SMARICK: That's why I'm so frustrated by the celebratory tone of today's results, when so many of these districts are stuck in a perpetual state of low performance.

SANCHEZ: Andy Smarick is with Bellweather Education Partners, a nonprofit group that focuses on low-income kids. He says, overall, only 12 percent of black students scored at grade level in math. And it's worse in several cities.

SMARICK: In Detroit, it's 3 percent; in Milwaukee, 4 percent; Fresno, 6 percent; 7 percent in Cleveland.

SANCHEZ: Even in Washington, D.C., which led all 21 cities, the vast majority of children still perform well below grade level, despite their gains. Smarick says the headline for this report should read...

SMARICK: Urban districts continue to poorly serve our lowest-income kids.

SANCHEZ: Mike Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools offered his own headline.

MIKE CASSERLY: Urban education can and is being improved across the country.

SANCHEZ: And by the way, both headlines are accurate. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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