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Baltimore Schools Chief Sees Urban NAEP Results as Validation of Gains

As soon as Andrés A. Alonso landed in Baltimore two years ago, the city schools chief began lobbying to bring the district into the Trial Urban District Assessment program, the special administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

For years, people inside and outside Baltimore had believed the city's public schools were among the worst, if not the worst, in the nation. (Season Four of The Wire didn't help dispel that image). So Alonso, a transplant from the New York City public schools, wanted hard evidence to show exactly where the district stood among its urban peers. Though the district had begun making gains on state exams, "we had no comparative frame," Alonso said, because no other districts in Maryland come close to serving as many poor students as Baltimore.

Yesterday, the district saw its first NAEP results spelled out--for 4th and 8th grade mathematics--and found itself mostly in the middle of the pack. At the 4th grade level, Baltimore scored just behind Atlanta and had the same scale scores as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. In the 8th grade, the district was near the bottom, only scoring better than Detroit, the District of Columbia, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

Alonso had some of his research people break out Baltimore's results in different ways. Looking only at how African-American students did--and Baltimore had the highest concentration of black students who took the NAEP this year--the district looks better at both grade levels. The district also looked better when it considered only the performance of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.

Mr. Alonso sees the results as a validation of the gains that students have made on state exams over the last few years. Earlier this year, the district shed its designation of "in corrective action" because of the steady academic gains of its elementary students.

"There will always be skeptics when African-American and Latino kids make progress," Mr. Alonso told me. "They will say that the standards were somehow demoted or that there was cheating, so by doing the Trial Urban Assessment, we could establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that the gains we've been making are real."

Still, the superintendent is not satisfied with the district's performance and told Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie that he might overhaul the math curriculum.

Here's how he put it to me: "Now we go back to the drawing board and look at standards and curriculum, and analyze the areas where we show strength and weaknesses," he said. "And then we've got to work toward creating a culture in the district where [NAEP] becomes the higher standard that we move toward."

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