Fresno Unified School District's fourth- and eighth-grade students did not test as well in reading as their peers in some of America's largest school districts, according to a federal study released Thursday.
In 2009, Fresno Unified's eighth-graders tested 12 points below the average for eighth-graders in the study, known as the Trial Urban District Assessment.
The study compares Fresno students with students in 17 other large city school districts and with national averages.
When compared to the national average, Fresno's eighth-graders tested 22 points lower, the study said.
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Meanwhile, Fresno's fourth-graders scored 13 points below their peers in other urban districts and 23 points below the 2009 national average, the study said.
It's the first year Fresno Unified has taken part in the testing program, which is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as "the nation's report card." Results of math testing were released in December.
For school districts that have participated in the program since it began in 2003, gains are beginning to show.
Those districts have climbed from 15 points below their peers nationwide to 10 points below, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great Public Schools, said Thursday from Washington, D.C.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said it's important for the district to be in the national program so the district can measure its progress.
"While participation in the ... program has been humbling, it is essential that we do not pull back from the work we still need to do for our students," he said.
David Gordon, Sacramento County's superintendent of schools, said he is confident Fresno's test scores will rise under Hanson's leadership.
"He is relentless in trying to benchmark against the best standards he can find, and this is the best standard in America," he said.
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 reading performance of the 18 large districts with those of public-school students nationally, as well as other cities with populations of at least 250,000.
About 2,800 Fresno Unified students were tested in January through March. Other districts included Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York.
For cities with comparable districts -- measured by the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches -- Fresno Unified had similar scores.
Atlanta and Washington, D.C., were cited for making significant improvements since the program began.
"When we received our first results, it was very depressing," said Beverly Hall, Atlanta's superintendent. "We have always felt our kids can and should be held to higher standards."
At 86%, Fresno tied with Chicago for having the second-largest number of low-income eighth-grade students among the 18 districts. For urban areas with similar eighth-grade demographics, Fresno Unified was tied at next-to-worst with Washington, D.C.'s, public schools for the number of students testing at below-basic levels in reading. Detroit was at the bottom.
Fresno's fourth-graders fared slightly better. They tied for fifth from the bottom in testing at below-basic levels. Fresno has the second-largest number of fourth-grade students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, at 89%, the study said.
Hanson said "targeted changes" will be made in Fresno Unified, based on what district officials learned from the national assessment.
"We continue to delve deeply into these results and adjust our teaching and learning strategies to deliver the education our students and our community deserve," he said.
For math scores, which were released in December, Fresno Unified eighth-graders were 13 points below their peers in large city districts and 24 points under the national average.
Math scores for fourth-graders were similar, about 12 points below students in other large cities and 20 points below the national average.
Fresno Unified's math scores were similar to urban areas that had nearly the same low-income demographics, the study showed.
An assessment of the districts' performance in science will be released later this year.