The study is based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, federal reading and math exams taken this year by fourth- and eighth-graders across the country.
The tests are the only continuing and nationally representative assessment of what students know. State-by-state results were released last month, but large cities have agreed to have their results published separately since 2002, with 21 participating this year.
Generally speaking, the results in large cities mirror national trends: Students show some improvement in math, but progress in reading is stagnating.
In reading and math, the gaps in scores between black and white students were widest in D.C. schools compared with those in 20 other urban systems, including New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
The D.C. gap was also greater than the national average and the average for cities with populations of 250,000 or more, according to the study.
On the fourth-grade math test, for example, black students in the District scored an average of 212 points out of a possible 500, and their white classmates averaged 272. That 60-point difference is more than twice the national achievement gap for that test.
The achievement gap has been a stubborn problem and of growing concern among educators, policymakers and civic leaders. With enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, the federal government made closing the gap a priority and a reason for increased accountability in public education. Many strategies have been deployed by schools across the country to attack the gap, but few have resulted in substantial progress. All the cities analyzed for racial and ethnic performance gaps found differences between whites and blacks and between whites and Hispanics.
But in every case, their variations were narrower than in the District — in some cases, five times smaller. In the fourth-grade math example, for instance, Cleveland’s black and white students were separated by 21 points.
The District’s racial gap is really an income divide, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the largest urban school systems.
“You’ve got relatively more well-to-do whites in Upper Northwest quadrants, particularly Ward 3, which score higher than white students nationally, and you’re comparing it with poor, African American students largely in wards 7 and 8,” Casserly said. “There are extreme income disparities.”
Although Cleveland appears to have a narrow racial gap, the small difference between black and white students’ test scores is linked to the fact that both groups are relatively low-income, Casserly said. “You’ve got poor Appalachian whites in Cleveland and poor African American students,” he said.