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Hub students outscore peers in large cities

Fourth, eighth grades shine in ’09 national reading test

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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Boston’s fourth- and eighth-graders outscored their peers in most large cities on a national reading test last year, according to a report released yesterday by the US Education Department.

Boston’s eighth-graders scored an average of 257 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, surpassed only by Austin, Texas; Miami-Dade; Charlotte, N.C., and Jefferson County, Ky. The average score among eighth-graders for the 18 large cities in the report was 252.

Fourth-graders in the Hub were topped by students in five other cities: New York City, Charlotte, Miami-Dade, Austin, and Jefferson County, Ky., according to the Nation’s Report Card report. Boston’s fourth-graders scored an average of 215 points out of a possible 500 points, which was 5 points higher than the big-city average.

Boston’s scores in both grades four and eight on the national tests have been steadily rising since the studies of big cities began in 2003.

“We feel pleased about the progress, but we know we have a lot more to do,’’ Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said. “We are still a little below national averages.’’

At both grade levels, Boston students trail the overall national average, which includes school districts in suburban and rural areas, by 5 points.

Most Boston students tested showed that they possessed at least fundamental skills in reading, while some exhibited superior skills, according to the study’s results. Some 67 percent of Boston’s eighth-graders and 61 percent of fourth-graders landed in the basic, proficient, or advanced categories. The rest of the students scored below basic.

The report follows the release of a similar study in December that showed Boston students performed near the top on the national math exams, too.

“I think Boston has done quite well over the years,’’ said David Gordon, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the bipartisan body that sets policy for the national exam and that issued yesterday’s report. “Boston students are generally in the top tier of urban districts.’’

In yesterday’s report, Charlotte earned the top average fourth-grade score with 225 points. On the eighth-grade exams, Austin and Miami-Dade tied for first with 261 points.

Not all students at each grade level take the exams: A representative sampling of students from those grade levels — somewhere between 800 and 2,400 individuals, depending on the size of the school district — took the tests.

In Boston, trends in reading achievement on the national exam tend to mirror those on the state’s MCAS exams, which are given to all the district’s fourth- and eighth-graders.

Johnson said she is hoping to accelerate student achievement in reading even further. She added that the district introduced a new reading program in its elementary schools last fall to bring more consistency to the teaching of reading.

The program, Scott Foresman Reading Street from Pearson, replaces a patchwork of reading programs previously used by the schools. The uniform approach attempts to bring more consistency to reading instruction, which could be particularly beneficial to students who transfer to a new school.

The program also comes with a comprehensive intervention program for students who are struggling to gain the basic skills, Johnson said.

At the middle school and high school level, Johnson said the district is placing a stronger emphasis on writing in all subject areas and requiring students to read more books. She said she is also researching the addition of new reading and writing programs for the middle schools.

Data released yesterday also revealed a lingering gap in achievement between students of different socio-economic backgrounds in Boston.

In fourth grade, for instance, Asian and white students scored an average of 231 points, while black students scored 19 points lower and Hispanics 22 points lower.

In eighth-grade, the gaps were slightly wider.

While Boston officials found the gaps concerning and vowed to close them, they pointed out that the city’s black and Hispanic students largely score better on the exams than peers of similar backgrounds in most other cities.

“We serve those students reasonably well,’’ said Kamal Chavda, assistant superintendent for research, assessment, and evaluations in the Boston public schools.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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