Education Beat: Where Baltimore's reading scores rank among urban systems

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By Mike Bowler

The “nation’s report card” for big cities was released Thursday, and the reading scores of Baltimore fourth- and eighth-graders were middling. That's just as they had been in mathematics last December, when the National Assessment found city kids in the second tier among 18 big-city districts from Boston to Los Angeles.

The scores standing on their own were not much to crow about. In the “Trial Urban District Assessment” (TUDA), Baltimore was roughly two-thirds of the way down the list, outperforming the likes of Detroit (whose results were just a tick above random guessing), Cleveland and Milwaukee, but behind Charlotte, Miami-Dade, Austin, New York and Boston.

That’s the horse race, but here’s what really jumps out: Baltimore is the “blackest” city in the nation. Eighty-eight percent of the city’s fourth-graders and 91 percent of its eighth-graders are African American, and four of every five kids are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The city, in fact, has so few white students that the people who administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress could not produce a reliable average score for whites in one of the grades tested.

These demographics mean that Baltimore isn’t competing on a level playing field. There’s an almost perfect inverse relationship between poverty and TUDA scores. The higher the scores, the lower the poverty. In Baltimore, nine of 10 Baltimore public school students are African-American, and the vast majority are poor. Charlotte and Austin are always near the top of the TUDA scoring, and they have two of the lowest poverty rates.

When Baltimore is stacked up against districts with similar demographics, it is more than competitive, especially in the eighth grade, once the weakest academic point in the K-12 chain. Thus, the city’s African American/free lunch eighth-graders on this test outperformed peers in Detroit, Fresno, the District, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Philadelphia,, San Diego and Los Angeles. These kids even outpaced the average for large central cities. “We’re just a few points away from the high-propane reform districts,” CEO Andres Alonso said yesterday.

But Alonso wasn’t tooting his horn that loudly. After all, a whopping 46 percent of the city’s eighth-graders and 58 percent of its fourth-graders scored below basic on this test of reading. The eighth-grade scores, of course, reflect the failure of the system five and six years ago to teach these kids to read.

Just the day before yesterday, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a report focusing on the importance of achieving grade-level reading proficiency by the end of the third grade. (The Sun’s “Reading By 9” campaign at the turn of the decade had a similar theme.)

“We’ve got a lot of work to do," Alonso said, "and it’s urgent that we do it now.”

Mike Bowler retired from the Baltimore Sun in 2004 after 34 years at the newspaper as a reporter and editor, much of it covering education. He wrote more than 900 of his “Education Beat” columns for The Sun.
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