Fresno Unified School District fourth- and eighth-graders tested worse in math than students in some of the nation's large cities, a new federal report shows.
Yet the assessment also held encouraging news, school officials said, because the district's performance was about the same as that of districts of similar demographics.
Superintendent Michael Hanson said he had expected Fresno students might be at the bottom.
"When you take a look at more detailed data, we are running with a pack of schools in exactly the same position," Hanson said.
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The federal study -- known as the "Trial Urban District Assessment" -- was voluntary. Fresno Unified was one of 18 large urban districts that signed up to be tested. Hanson said the extra data will help the district identify areas for improvement.
It's the first time Fresno Unified participated in the testing program, which is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as "the nation's report card."
The project is a joint effort developed by the National Assessment Governing Board, the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Great City Schools.
The results compared the math performance of the 18 large districts with those of public-school students nationally, as well as in other cities with populations of at least 250,000.
About 2,700 Fresno Unified students -- not including charter school students -- were tested in January through March. Besides Fresno Unified, some of the other districts included Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston and New York.
Overall, Fresno Unified students scored lower in math than the average of public-school students in large cities.
For example, fourth-graders scored an average of 219, lower than the 231 average for public-school students in large cities, and 239 nationally.
The average score for Fresno's eighth-graders was 258, compared to 271 for students in large cities and 282 nationally. The score ranges from 0 to 500.
Among fourth-graders in Fresno, 58% performed at basic levels or higher, compared with 72% in large cities. Among eighth-graders, 46% performed at basic or higher, compared with 60% in large cities.
David Gordon, Sacramento County's Superintendent of Schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, commended Fresno Unified for agreeing to be tested -- and having a spotlight shined on its students.
Fresno has challenges, Gordon said. Of the 18 districts in the study, Fresno had the second-highest percentage of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. Only Cleveland had more.
"It makes a difference in the challenges the district has to deal with compared to other districts," Gordon said. "Generally, the lower-income children are harder to bring up to grade level than more affluent children."
The Trial Urban District Assessment study has been released every two years since 2003. Eleven districts participated in 2007. Seven new districts were added this year, and several more will join next year.
Hanson said it appears that the testing program helps districts make academic progress. The latest results show that eight of the 10 districts involved since 2003 made significant gains. The districts that began testing more recently showed fewer gains.
Fresno will participate again, and not just in math, Hanson said. Future reports also will examine the district's performance in language arts and science, he said.
"We are not going to be fearful of data," he said.