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S.L. district lags on SAT scores

But officials say not to take data at face value

WASHINGTON — Ninety percent of the nation's big-city school districts have improved test scores over the past few years. But Salt Lake City School District is among the 10 percent that have not, according to a study released Monday by the Council of the Great City Schools.

District officials, however, say the study doesn't look at the same test data for each district, so scores shouldn't be compared.

"No one should take it at face value," Salt Lake City School District assistant superintendent Charles Hausman said. "That's not to say we don't want to get better as a district. We want the right metrics and the right data used."

The study hailed the positive findings nationally as proof that urban schools are as able as others to improve and often did so at a faster rate than their state average.

Urban schools are making the kind of progress now being demanded by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The data suggest that improvement is possible on a relatively large scale — not just school-by-school — and that it can be accomplished under even the most challenging circumstances, said council executive director Michael Casserly.

But the report said such improvement is yet to come in the Salt Lake City School District. It said that math and reading scores dropped there in the five years between 1997 and 2002 in most grades tested on the Stanford Achievement Test.

For example, median SAT scores for fifth-graders dropped in that time from 42 to 36 in Salt Lake City. Statewide in Utah during the same time, median scores remained constant at 49. For eighth-graders, math scores dropped in Salt Lake City from 47 to 39, while statewide they dropped from 60 to 56.

While the study looked at five-year trends on SAT scores for Salt Lake City, it looked at trends on a different test — mainly criterion reference tests, like Utah's test on how well kids know the core curriculum — for most of the 59 big-city school districts that belong to the organization and were studied. Utah does not have five years' worth of scores on the core curriculum test.

It's easier for districts to show progress on criterion reference tests because they measure the things teachers are teaching, Hausman said.

Progress isn't as easily measured on the SAT, which is intentionally designed to keep scores in a bell curve.

"Most of the states showing progress are not using a standardized test," Hausman said.

The council said the data in its study are imperfect and noted different districts took different types of tests, so data are not comparable from one state to another. Also, test participation rates are not available.

Still, the report said the data present an emerging picture of how America's Great City Schools are performing and strongly suggest that they are making progress, particularly in math achievement. Reading gains in city schools appear to be more modest.

The study said 90 percent of the big-city school districts raised math scores in more than half the grades tested, and nearly half the urban districts were making gains at a faster rate than state average.

It said that 83 percent of the big-city districts improved reading tests in more than half the grades tested, with 51 percent of them doing so at a faster rate than their state.