But in these urban centers, where large numbers of disadvantaged kids live, students compete well when compared with national peers of the same race, ethnicity or economic level.
Ten school districts, including Cleveland, volunteered to set the city benchmark in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, regarded as the nation's report card on a range of subjects. The goal is to give these cities a valid way to compare themselves with areas that share problems and population trends and to track their progress on a test known for its stringent scoring.
Across the country, in reading, only 30 percent of fourth-graders and eighth-graders reach at least the key level, proficient, which means competency over difficult material. In math, 31 percent of fourth-graders and 27 percent of eighth-graders do at least that well.
In almost every case, the city students did worse, the new scores show. That means less than three out of 10 students achieved at the level they should have, based on federal standards.
The sole exception was Charlotte, N.C., where students met the national average in reading and exceeded it in math. Charlotte has far fewer minorities than the other areas, and black and Hispanic students typically score below whites on standardized tests. This achievement gap has fueled changes that include much more aggressive federal oversight of education.
Yet Charlotte also has tried to enroll more black students in high-level math courses, said Ross Wiener, policy director of The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority students. The variation in scores among the urban districts shows how much state and district policies affect student learning, he said.
The chosen school districts account for one out of eight of the nation's poor students, one out of seven minority students and one out of six students with limited English.
Beyond Charlotte and Cleveland, the districts are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and San Diego. The District of Columbia was included for comparison, although its results were released earlier with state and national numbers.
Overall, Charlotte, New York City, San Diego, Boston and Houston had the highest percentages of students performing at a proficient level or better.
Darvin Winick, chairman of the independent board that oversees the test, said the scores should erode the myth that students in urban districts can't compete. City comparisons to national averages can obscure the fact that, in a few cases, black students in the cities scored better than blacks nationwide, as also was the case for some Hispanic students.
Still, notable performance gaps with whites persisted.
"I'm not saying it's a positive finding for minorities. What I'm saying is it's not the urban district environment that's driving it," said Winick, an education adviser to President Bush when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas. "It just removes that as one of the excuses: 'We can't educate them because they're in the inner city.'"
Education Secretary Rod Paige commended the districts for taking part. His views of the results were less rosy than those of Winick, whom Paige appointed to his post.
"The achievement gap in these districts is something that I find truly worrisome," Paige said. "It is a problem nationally, but in some of the districts, it is abysmal. … As a nation, we must stand united against a culture that mocks academic success in certain communities."
This is the first time in the test's history, which dates to 1969, that district scores were available in math. Six of the cities took part in the first district-level reading tests in 2002, and most of them have improved their scores since last year, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban districts.
The reading test ranged from literary analysis to comprehension of basic daily tasks, while the math test covered such areas as probability, algebra and mathematical reasoning.