Sunday, July 30, 2006

Vouchers: Will the legislature say yes to the kids?

Vouchers: Will the legislature say yes to the kids?
by Bud Schauerte / LSR

When, in 1955, the future Nobel laureate-economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose conceived the idea of tax-funded school vouchers and wrote a now famous treatise on the subject (“The Role of Government in Education”), virtually no one believed that such vouchers someday would play a significant role in funding primary and secondary schooling through private and religious schools.
Correct, they haven’t.
The number of U.S. tax-funded students attending private and religious schools today is so low that totals are pure speculation. Add up the limited number of voucher-eligible K-12 students in the seven states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Utah, Iowa), plus the District of Columbia, where legislation authorizes limited tax funded vouchers, and the number barely exceeds 130,000 students.
Home schooling growth is helpful as a comparison with tax-funded voucher education. Brian D. Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that U.S. home schoolers now total more than 2 million, with the number increasing by seven percent annually.
About 400,000 Texas students are home-schooled, according to a group known as Texas Home Educators.
Among the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) is that parents have the option of transferring their children from failing schools to better-performing public schools. Regrettably for supporters of vouchers, the NCLB law does not provide for private school transfer options, a shortcoming which supporters intend to correct before the NCLB law comes up for renewal next year. There is a huge political fight being waged about it.
“What led to increased interest in vouchers was the deterioration of schooling dating from 1965 when the National Educational Association (NEA) converted itself from a professional association to a trade union,” Friedman states from his website.
The NEA, now the largest labor union in the nation, is confident that the nation again will reject vouchers on both Federal and state levels. “U.S. voters, for the last 30 years, have rejected vouchers every time they’ve been proposed;” the NEA claims on its website.
If that was the case at one time, it isn’t any more. Arizona in June passed new and expanded school-choice programs for the state, while the state of Wisconsin expanded Milwaukee’s long-standing school choice program by 50 percent.
What the NEA fails to take into account is that the fast pace of school failures has trapped large numbers of children in failing schools with little or no hope of getting out.
In Texas, a huge concern is the high school dropout rate. According to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), Texas high school students drop out at the rate of 36 percent annually. The percentages are greater for Hispanic (48 percent) and African American (43 percent) students.
The U.S. Department of Education in June noted that 3 million children currently are attending chronically failing schools. Such schools are defined by the NCLB Act as those which have failed to satisfy minimal state standards for at least six consecutive years.
On the left/right political spectrum, Republicans and conservatives have been more likely to support school vouchers than Democrats.
But Michael Q. Sullivan, vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), claims that school choice is not a partisan issue. “Some 80% to 90% of both African American and Hispanic parents, most of which support Democrat candidates for public offices, are demanding school choice,” he says.
The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is further evidence that those who favor or oppose tax-funded school voucher cannot be stereotyped by political party.
During last year’s regular legislative session, a pilot school-voucher program for certain Texas school districts might have become law had it not been for a lethal Republican amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Rep. Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels), authored the amendment to SB 422 which stripped the pilot voucher program from the reauthorizing bill. The vote total that erased hopes of a school voucher program in Texas was a slim 74-70.
A switch of two or three votes—Democrat or Republican—in the House of Representatives would have given Texas its first tax-funded school voucher program.
But the setback in the Texas House last year has not discouraged newly organized school voucher supporters. The most recent (June 7, 2006) lobbying group to organize is one called “Texans for School Choice,” headed by Jason Johnson as executive director.
“Our goal is to support legislation which will set up pilot tax-funded voucher programs in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio,” Johnson says. “We intend to organize parents and keep them informed on school choice issue.”
So what will happen if the Texas Legislature again rejects tax-funded school vouchers? That’s exactly what happened last month in Newark, N. J., when the Legislature rejected vouchers for New Jersey students.
A caboodle of parents, acting on behalf of 60,000 students, got together and filed a class action law suit against the whole state. Could this occur in Texas? Not likely because members of the Texas Legislature (especially Republicans) would need to have a political death wish. Come to think of it, a class action lawsuit against the state of Texas is entirely possible.
Distributed by

Young Latinas and a Cry for Help

New York Times Editorial
July 21, 2006

Young Latinas and a Cry for Help

A recent series in the Spanish-language New York newspaper El Diario/La Prensa sheds some light on a mostly overlooked national phenomenon, the misunderstood and endangered young Latina, who represents one of the fastest-growing segments of the American population. Hispanic teenage girls attempt suicide more often than any other group. They become mothers at younger ages. They tend not to complete their education. They are plagued by rising drug use and other social problems.

A federal study found that a startling one in six young Hispanic women had attempted suicide, a rate roughly one and a half times as high as that among non-Hispanic black and white teenage girls. If there was any good news, it was that these young women usually survived. A five-year study now in its second year in New York is being led by Dr. Luis Zayas, a professor of social work and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, who says the self-destructive behavior seems to affect Latinas of every origin and every region of the country.

El Diario tracked several young women and found that they faced particularly acute social pressures, especially if their parents were foreign-born. Dr. Zayas and other experts note that the suicide attempts trend higher for Latinas who are the first generation born in the United States.

Adolescent and teenage girls with families recently rooted in Latin America are expected to adhere to old culture traditions, including tending to other family members and putting themselves last. Self-esteem issues are common among teens generally, but they appear magnified for young women who cannot seem to fit in at home or away from it.

About one-quarter of Latina teens drop out, a figure surpassed only by Hispanic young men, one-third of whom do not complete high school. Latinas, especially those in recently arrived families, often live in poverty and without health insurance.

Another piece of the puzzle is how to address the complication of very early, usually unmarried motherhood. Religious beliefs in Hispanic families often limit sex education and rule out abortion. Federal statistics show that about 24 percent of Latinas are mothers by the age of 20 - three times the rate of non-Hispanic white teens.
Solving these problems will require more than research. What is needed is a larger effort that includes educators, policymakers, families and communities. Here's one more statistic: One in four women in the United States will be Hispanic by the middle of the century. The time to help is now.

Language Barriers to Health Care in the United States

Language Barriers to Health Care in the United States
Glenn Flores, M.D.

A 12-year-old Latino boy arrived at a Boston emergency department with dizziness anda headache. The patient, whom I'll call Raul, had limited proficiency in English; his mother spoke no English, and the attending physician spoke little Spanish. No medical interpreter was available, so Raul acted as his own interpreter. His mother described his symptoms:

"La semana pasada a el le dio mucho mareo y no tenía fiebre ni nada, y la familia por parte de papá todos padecen de diabetes." (Last week, he had a lot of dizziness, and he didn't have fever or anything, and his dad's family all suffer from diabetes.)

"Uh hum," replied the physician.

The mother went on. "A mí me da miedo porque el lo que estaba mareado, mareado, mareado y no tenía fiebre ni nada." (I'm scared because he's dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and he didn't have fever or anything.)

Turning to Raul, the physician asked, "OK, so she's saying you look kind of yellow, is that what she's saying?"

Raul interpreted for his mother: "Es que si me vi amarillo?" (Is it that I looked yellow?)

"Estaba como mareado, como pálido" (You were like dizzy, like pale), his mother replied.

Raul turned back to the doctor. "Like I was like paralyzed, something like that," he said.

If Raul received inappropriate care owing to his misinterpretation, he would not be alone. One interpreter, mistranslating for a nurse practitioner, told the mother of a seven-year-old girl with otitis media to put (oral) amoxicillin "in the ears."1 In another case, a Spanish-speaking woman told a resident that her two-year-old had "hit herself" when she fell off her tricycle; the resident misinterpreted two words, understood the fracture to have resulted from abuse, and contacted the Department of Social Services (DSS). DSS sent a worker who, without an interpreter present, had the mother sign over custody of her two children.2 Clearly, catastrophes can and do result from such miscommunication.
Some 49.6 million Americans (18.7 percent of U.S. residents) speak a language other than English at home; 22.3 million (8.4 percent) have limited English proficiency, speaking English less than "very well," according to self-ratings. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Americans who spoke a language other than English at home grew by 15.1 million (a 47 percent increase), and the number with limited English proficiency grew by 7.3 million (a 53 percent increase, see graph). The numbers are particularly high in some places: in 2000, 40 percent of Californians and 75 percent of Miami residents spoke a language other than English at home, and 20 percent of Californians and 47 percent of Miami residents had limited English proficiency.
Percentages of Americans Who Speak a Language Other Than English at Home or Who Have Limited English Proficiency.

Data are from the U.S. Census Bureau, which examines language proficiency in school-age children but not in those under five years of age. Data on the proportion of children with limited English proficiency were not collected in the 1980 Census.

Yet many patients who need medical interpreters have no access to them. According to one study, no interpreter was used in 46 percent of emergency department cases involving patients with limited English proficiency.3 Few clinicians receive training in working with interpreters; only 23 percent of U.S. teaching hospitals provide any such training, and most of these make it optional.1 Data collection on patients' primary language and English proficiency is frequently inadequate or nonexistent. Although no federal statutes require the collection of such information, no statute prohibits it, either.4

Language barriers can have deleterious effects.1,5 Patients who face such barriers are less likely than others to have a usual source of medical care; they receive preventive services at reduced rates; and they have an increased risk of nonadherence to medication. Among patients with psychiatric conditions, those who encounter language barriers are more likely than others to receive a diagnosis of severe psychopathology - but are also more likely to leave the hospital against medical advice. Among children with asthma, those who confront language barriers have an increased risk of intubation. Such patients are less likely than others to return for follow-up appointments after visits to the emergency room, and they have higher rates of hospitalization and drug complications. Greater resources are used in their care, but they have lower levels of patient satisfaction.

Inadequate communication can have tragic consequences: in one case, the misinterpretation of a single word led to a patient's delayed care and preventable quadriplegia.1 A Spanish-speaking 18-year-old had stumbled into his girlfriend's home, told her he was "intoxicado," and collapsed. When the girlfriend and her mother repeated the term, the non-Spanish-speaking paramedics took it to mean "intoxicated"; the intended meaning was "nauseated." After more than 36 hours in the hospital being worked up for a drug overdose, the comatose patient was reevaluated and given a diagnosis of intracerebellar hematoma with brain-stem compression and a subdural hematoma secondary to a ruptured artery. (The hospital ended up paying a $71 million malpractice settlement.)

In 1998, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum regarding the prohibition, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, against discrimination on the basis of national origin - which affects persons with limited English proficiency. This memorandum states that the denial or delay of medical care because of language barriers constitutes discrimination and requires that recipients of Medicaid or Medicare funds provide adequate language assistance to patients with limited English proficiency. In 2000, a presidential executive order was issued on improving such persons' access to services. Thirteen states currently provide third-party reimbursement (through Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program) for interpreter services. Unfortunately, most of the states containing the largest numbers of patients with limited English proficiency have not followed suit, sometimes citing concerns about costs. Although the Office for Civil Rights issued guidelines in 2003 that seem to allow health care facilities to opt out of providing language services if their costs are too burdensome, Title VI provides no such exemption.

Ad hoc interpreters, including family members, friends, untrained members of the support staff, and strangers found in waiting rooms or on the street, are commonly used in clinical encounters. But such interpreters are considerably more likely than professional interpreters to commit errors that may have adverse clinical consequences.1,5 Ad hoc interpreters are also unlikely to have had training in medical terminology and confidentiality; their priorities sometimes conflict with those of patients; and their presence may inhibit discussions regarding sensitive issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, psychiatric illness, and sexually transmitted diseases.5 It is especially risky to have children interpret, since they are unlikely to have a full command of two languages or of medical terminology; they frequently make errors of clinical consequence; and they are particularly likely to avoid sensitive issues.1,5 Given the documented risks associated with the use of ad hoc interpreters, it is of concern that the 2003 guidance from the Office for Civil Rights states that such use "may be appropriate."

Later this year, the California legislature will consider a bill prohibiting state-funded organizations from using children younger than 15 years of age as medical interpreters. Leland Yee, the California speaker pro tempore, proposed the bill, prompted by his experiences interpreting for his mother and, later, as a child psychologist. The bill requires organizations receiving state funding to establish a procedure for "providing competent interpretation services that does not involve the use of children."

Although this legislation may emerge as a state model, as an unfunded mandate, it will have limited power to improve care. Perhaps the time has come for payers to be required to reimburse providers for interpreter services. The provision of adequate language services results in optimal communication, patient satisfaction, outcomes, resource use, and patient safety.1,5 A 2002 report from the Office of Management and Budget estimated that it would cost, on average, only $4.04 (0.5 percent) more per physician visit to provide all U.S. patients who have limited English proficiency with appropriate language services for emergency-department, inpatient, outpatient, and dental visits. This seems like a small price to pay to ensure safe, high-quality health care for 49.6 million Americans.

Source Information

Dr. Flores is director of the Center for the Advancement of Underserved Children and a professor of pediatrics, epidemiology, and health policy at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Children's Research Institute of the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

An interview with Dr. Flores can be heard at


1. Flores G, Laws MB, Mayo SJ, et al. Errors in medical interpretation and their potential clinical consequences in pediatric encounters. Pediatrics 2003;111:6-14. [Abstract/Full Text]
2. Flores G, Abreu M, Schwartz I, Hill M. The importance of language and culture in pediatric care: case studies from the Latino community. J Pediatr 2000;137:842-848. [CrossRef][ISI][Medline]
3. Baker DW, Parker RM, Williams MV, Coates WC, Pitkin K. Use and effectiveness of interpreters in an emergency department. JAMA 1996;275:783-788. [Abstract]
4. Youdelman M, Hitov S. Racial, ethnic and primary language data collection: an assessment of federal policies, practices and perceptions. Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: National Health Law Program, October 2001.
5. Flores G. The impact of medical interpreter services on the quality of health care: a systematic review. Med Care Res Rev 2005;62:255-299. [Abstract]

TEA's House Bill 1 Information Site

Here is info on HB1 which passed during the last special legislative session and which you can access on the TEA website. There's lots of pieces to it so it merits a close read.

Another thing. I just found this pdf file from the TEA website of a presentation that by the looks of it was made at a State Board of Education meeting. If you scroll down, you'll see some pretty good recommendations in it for how to address the lack of preparedness (or conversely, making college ready), our youth.

Also, scroll down in this article in order to fast forward to the college readiness portion of the bill that is going to certainly gain more steam come September.


TEA's House Bill 1 Information Site

Contact TEA Governmental Relations Division: (512) 463-9682
Contact us by email at
Texas Education Agency · 1701 North Congress Avenue · Austin, Texas, 78701 · (512) 463-9734
July 30, 2006
HB1 Programs

Here TEA will publish various information regarding its plans for implementation of House Bill 1, specific to the programs listed below.

Three documents will be created for each program: Rulemaking Information, RFP Status, Stakeholder Meeting Information, and the RFP document itself. These documents will be published as information becomes available, so check back often for the Program titles below to become enabled links.

As of July 26, there are new documents available in the High School Allotment section and the Agency Review of ISD Accounting Systems section!

Please review the information accessible through the menu at left, and sign up for the HB1 Listserv!

High School Allotment
Provides $275 per high school student to districts to prepare students to go on to higher education, encourage students to take advanced academic course work, increase the rigor of academic course work, align secondary and postsecondary curriculum and support promising high school completion and success initiatives in grades 6 though 12. The commissioner shall adopt rules relating to the permissible uses of these funds.

Agency Review of ISD Accounting Systems
Presently, there is no standard requirement for such systems other than a system that enables adherence to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and the general statutory language of Texas Education Code section 44.007 (set out in agency rule under the Financial Accountability System Resource Guide). Under the terms of the proposed RFP, the proposer must conduct a comprehensive review of the accounting systems used by school districts and charter schools.

Establishment of education research centers
Texas colleges and universities are eligible to submit a Request for Proposal for the establishment of an Education Research Center. Up to three centers may be established. The centers shall conduct research for the benefit of education in Texas, including research relating to the impact of state and federal education programs, the performance of educator preparation programs, public school finance, and the best practices of school districts with regard to classroom instruction, bilingual education programs, special language programs, and business practices..

Public access to PEIMS data and agency web site re-design
The redesign of the Texas Education Agency website will significantly improve user awareness of and access to various data reports available on the TEA web site. The goal is for consumers of these reports to more easily navigate, find and retrieve the appropriate reports, including the ability to download data as appropriate. This project will take into consideration recommendations made by the Commissioner’s Advisory Panel on Public Access to PEIMS (as directed by TEC 7.008(b)), before developing a request for proposal.

Establishment of education and finance “Best Practices Clearinghouse"
The Best Practices Clearinghouse is an online resource with accessible information describing the best practices of high-performing and high efficient campuses and school districts. The Clearinghouse will include best practices in the areas of instruction, public school finance, resource allocation and business practices.

Agency evaluation of standardized accounting software for school districts
Any software application used by a district must support the standards for accounting systems defined by Texas Education Code section 44.007 and must be able to accommodate the standard forms required by the agency under Texas Education Code section 44.009. However, a software application implemented by a school district or charter school is not subject to approval by the agency and no official standards exist for such applications. Under the terms of the proposed RFP, the proposer must conduct a feasibility study for providing standardized accounting software to school districts and charter schools.

Agency shared services arrangements study
School districts and charter schools use a wide variety of shared service arrangements to accomplish organizational goals. Usually these arrangements pool the resources of numerous school districts under a single fiscal agent, most often a Regional Education Service Center (ESC). Under the terms of the proposed RFP, the proposer must conduct a study of the use of shared service arrangements and purchase of service contracts among school districts and charter schools.

Development of systems for calculating spending targets for ISDs
School district expenditure targets will be selected and defined based on best practices information and the unique characteristics of school districts. Expenditure targets will include costs in the areas of instruction, central administration, and district operations. Once these expenditure targets have been defined and selected they will be published for annual review on the agency website. School boards for school districts not meeting the published expenditure targets will be required to adopt and pass a resolution to substantiate the reason(s) for not meeting the published targets.

Electronic Student Records Exchange System
Proposers are eligible to submit a Request for Offer for the development of an electronic student records system that permits the transfer of student records between Texas school districts and the transfer of records from Texas school districts to Texas colleges and universities. The electronic student records system is to be implemented no later than the 2007-08 school year.

Principal Leadership Program
This program is designed to instruct principals in improvement of leadership skills, student achievement, graduation rates and teacher retention. The program is for anyone interested in becoming a principal or for principals interested in further professional development. The program is mandatory for principals of academically unacceptable campuses.

College Readiness: vertical teams and curriculum development
Vertical teams composed of public school and higher education faculty will be established by the commissioners of education and higher education to: 1) recommend college readiness standards and expectations; 2) evaluate the effectiveness of the TEKS in preparing students for college; 3) recommend strategies for aligning curricula; and 4) develop instructional strategies; professional development and online support materials.

Texas Governor's Schools
A summer residential program, approved by the commissioner of education, which offers curriculum focused on mathematics, science, humanities, or leadership and public policy for high-achieving high school students. The commissioner of education may offer grants up to $750,000 each year to public higher education institutions to administer a Governor’s School program.

Optional Flexible School Day
A program approved by the commissioner of education to provide flexible hours and days of attendance for students in grades 9-12, who are at risk of not graduating or are participating in an approved early college high school plan or are attending a campus implementing an innovative redesign under a plan approved by the commissioner of education.

Teacher Mentoring
The mentoring program allows a school district to assign a mentor teacher to each classroom teacher with less than 2 years teaching experience. Mentor teachers must complete a mentoring and induction training program that meets qualifications determined by the Commissioner. School districts can apply for grants to fund mentor teacher stipends, additional meeting time for mentors and teachers and mentor training.

Contact TEA's Governmental Relations Division at (512) 463-9682 or by email at with any questions you may have.
This page last updated July 26, 2006

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Update on "THECB Closing the Gaps" Initiative

Here's a link to a January 2006 THECBstatement on what needs to happen for the gap to close. Here are some more reports folks may find useful:


History of Closing the Gaps
Closing the Gaps Goals and Targets Summary
Closing the Gaps Revision


Despite all the public hand-wringing, Texas colleges and universities are failing to meet the state's goal of substantially increasing the enrollment of Latino students. A report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shows the number of Latino students in higher education grew by just more than 11,000 from 2004 to 2005 – the smallest increase in five years. The THECB had set a target to enroll 340,000 Latino students by 2005, as part of its "Closing The Gaps" initiative, but Texas schools fell short by more than 20,000. Some local institutions are working to do their part. Austin Community College is aggressively targeting first-generation college students as part of its "College Connection" program in local high schools.

– Michael May, AUSTIN CHRONICLE, July 28, 2006

U.S. to Help States With Testing of English-Learners

U.S. to Help States With Testing of English-Learners
By Lynn Olson / July 27, 2006 / Education Week

The U.S. Department of Education today announced a pilot program designed to help states better test the reading and mathematics skills of students with limited English proficiency under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The LEP Partnership, launched in collaboration with the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will immediately target some 20 states whose assessment systems have yet to receive full approval under the federal law, in part because they lack evidence that they are appropriately testing the content knowledge of students still learning English.

Many of those states have been threatened with federal fines for their failure to appropriately test such students. But federal officials said during a July 27 conference call that those fines would be held in abeyance in exchange for states working with the department to develop better tests and accommodations for English-language learners in time for the 2006-07 state test administration.

“For those states that enter into this partnership, we will waive the fines for this year, if they stay on the plan to improve the assessment systems for their LEP learners,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a conference call with reporters.

The No Child Left Behind law requires states to include English-language learners in regular standardized tests in reading and math and use those scores in calculating whether schools and districts have met annual achievement targets. But many states have struggled to meet that mandate, a problem that became clear during the Education Department’s peer review of state standards-and-assessment systems this spring. ("Department Raps States on Testing," July 12, 2006.)

“The peer-review process has shown us that the construction of valid, reliable LEP assessments is a real problem,” said Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon. “That was a reason why we believe it’s so important to get this LEP partnership off the ground quickly.”

Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, said Hispanic advocacy groups have been asking for the kind of technical assistance to states from the federal government that the partnership is expected to provide.

He said special help for assessing English-language learners is needed because states “ignored the needs of these children for far too long and hadn’t put in place any infrastructure, including the assessments they needed to measure if they were effective in instruction.”

A report released this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the audit arm of Congress, recommends that the Education Department explore ways to provide additional flexibility to states in how they assess English-language learners. The report lists several possible steps, including extending the period of time that some or all English-learners could attend U.S. schools and not have their test scores used for NCLB accountability purposes. In a written response included in the GAO’s July 26 report, Education Department officials didn't agree or disagree with the recommendation, but noted that they had already provided some flexibility to states in counting the scores of such students.

Federal officials did agree with the other three recommendations of the report, which are to support additional research on testing accommodations for English-learners; determine what additional help states need to ensure their assessments are valid and reliable for such students; and provide more guidance on how states should assess how well students with limited proficiency in English are learning the language.

The GAO's report is “exactly why we’re doing this,” Ms. Spellings. “What we have found in our discussions with states is there’s a willingness. There is a lack of capacity and understanding about how best to meet the needs of these students in a timely manner.”

Negotiated Agreements
To participate in the partnership, states must negotiate a plan with the Education Department that spells out how they will fully meet the federal law’s requirements for testing English-learners by the time they administer their state reading and math tests in 2006-07. The department is inviting teams from each of the 20 states to a meeting in Washington August 28-29, during which they can work with top researchers and practitioners and meet with department officials to develop state-specific plans and a timeline for improving their testing of ELL students. Six states—California, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee—are participating even though they don’t have problems with their tests.

LEP Partnership
To take part in its new LEP Partnership to address the testing of students with limited English proficiency, the U.S. Department of Education has invited participation from Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Ms. Spellings said four models for testing English-learners students will be explored by groups of states: using content tests in a language other than English; using tests of English proficiency to also assess students’ content knowledge; using simpler, less complex English on state exams; and providing appropriate accommodations to ELL students that permit them to participate in state tests without compromising the accuracy of the results.

On Oct. 28 and 29, the department will sponsor a meeting in which all states are invited to participate in the LEP Partnership.

The No Child Left Behind law requires that all students, including the nation’s approximately 5.4 million limited-English-proficient students, be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year. The GAO report about English-learners notes that in nearly two-thirds of the 48 states for which the researchers obtained data, such students didn’t meet their state’s goals for adequate yearly progress.

Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this report.

Web Only
Vol. 25, Issue 44

Most States Fail Demands in Education Law

Also included below is a strongly-worded letter dated July 18 from Doug Christensen, Commissioner of Education, to all Nebraskans regarding compliance with the requirements of NCLB. My next post is Maine's response. -Angela

July 25, 2006
Most States Fail Demands in Education Law

Most states failed to meet federal requirements that all teachers be “highly qualified” in core teaching fields and that state programs for testing students be up to standards by the end of the past school year, according to the federal government.

The deadline was set by the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s effort to make all American students proficient in reading and math by 2014. But the Education Department found that no state had met the deadline for qualified teachers, and it gave only 10 states full approval of their testing systems.

Faced with such findings, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who took office promising flexible enforcement of the law, has toughened her stance, leaving several states in danger of losing parts of their federal aid.

In the past few weeks, Ms. Spellings has flatly rejected as inadequate the testing systems in Maine and Nebraska. She has also said that nine states are so far behind in providing highly qualified teachers that they may face sanctions, and she has accused California of failing to provide federally required alternatives to troubled schools. California could be fined as much as $4.25 million.

The potential fines are far higher than any the Education Department has levied over the law, and officials in several states, already upset with many of the law’s provisions, have privately expressed further anger over the threat of fines. But Ms. Spellings faces pressure for firm enforcement of the law from a broad array of groups, including corporations and civil rights organizations.

“In the early part of her tenure, Secretary Spellings seemed more interested in finding reasons to waive the law’s requirements than to enforce them,” said Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, a group based in Phoenix that supports vigorous enforcement of provisions that give students the right to transfer from failing schools. “More recently, she seems intent on holding states’ feet to the fire.”

In an interview, Ms. Spellings acknowledged her shift in emphasis.

“I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on the law,” she said. She has stressed that message in part, she said, because the deadlines, which expired this month, were not met, and because lawmakers have been asking her whether states are meeting the law’s requirements.

“I’m enforcing the law — does that make me tough?” she said. “Last year it was, ‘We’re marching together toward the deadline,’ but now it’s time for, ‘Your homework is due.’ ”

Douglas D. Christensen, the Nebraska education commissioner, has accused Ms. Spellings and her subordinates of treating Nebraska in a “mean-spirited, arbitrary and heavy-handed way” after their announcement on June 30 that the state’s testing system was “nonapproved” and that they intended to withhold $127,000 in federal money.

In an interview in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. Christensen said he first realized the administration’s attitude had changed in April, when Raymond Simon, deputy education secretary, addressed most of the 50 state school superintendents at a gathering in Washington.

“Ray went on a 12-minute diatribe of ‘You folks just ain’t getting it done’ and said the department would be strictly interpreting the law from here on,” Mr. Christensen said.

Mr. Simon disputed that account — “I’m not a diatribe type of guy,” he said — but acknowledged that he had spoken bluntly.

“I tried to emphasize that we continue to be partners,” Mr. Simon said, “but that there are some things we cannot be flexible on.”

Mr. Bush signed the act into law in January 2002. Under his first education secretary, Rod Paige, legislators, educators and teachers unions criticized the law’s many rules and what they said was its overemphasis on standardized testing.

After Ms. Spellings took office in January 2005, she allowed some states to renegotiate the ways they enforced the law, and on major issues she offered ways to comply that prevented thousands of schools from being designated as failing.

Her efforts softened the outcry from states. But they brought criticism from corporate executives who hoped the law would shake up schools to protect American competitiveness. Criticism also came from civil rights groups that wanted the law to eliminate educational disparities between whites and minorities, and from groups angry that although the law required districts to help students in failing schools transfer out, only 1 percent of eligible students had done so.

Some experts say most parents do not want to remove children from neighborhood schools. But others say districts have subverted the program, partly by informing parents about their options too late.

Mr. Bolick’s group, the Alliance for School Choice, used a similar argument in a complaint filed this year against the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 250,000 students were eligible for transfers in 2005-6, but only about 500 successfully transferred. That complaint generated considerable news coverage and moved Ms. Spellings to action.

On May 15, she wrote every state, linking the “unacceptably low” participation in transfer programs to the “poor and uneven quality” of many districts’ implementation. “We are prepared to take significant enforcement action,” she said.

At the California Department of Education, Diane Levin, the state’s No Child Left Behind administrator, said she had assumed that California was on solid ground because a federal review of its enforcement of the law was ending positively.

But then California received a letter from Ms. Spellings’s office demanding extensive new documentation by Aug. 15 on the transfer programs in the state’s 20 largest districts. Officials warned California that if the documentation proved inadequate, the government would withhold part of the $700 million the state was to receive this fall for high-poverty schools, said Ms. Spellings’s spokesman, Kevin Sullivan.

Ms. Levin said California felt whipsawed. “We’re doing everything the law asks us to do,” she said, “which in a state this size is a huge amount of work, and we’re treated like we’re doing nothing.”

Dozens of other states have also felt the tougher enforcement.

In May, federal officials ruled that nine states were so far from meeting the teacher qualification provision that they could lose federal money. Ms. Spellings said she would decide on the penalties after August, when states must outline plans for getting 100 percent of teachers qualified.

At the end of June, Henry L. Johnson, an assistant secretary of education, wrote to 34 states, including New York and New Jersey, saying that their tests had major problems and that they must provide new documentation during a period of mandatory oversight.

Dr. Johnson warned some states that federal money might be withheld. And he rejected the testing programs in Maine and Nebraska. His letter to Maine said $114,000 would be withheld unless the state could change Washington’s mind.

Nebraska is the only state allowed to meet the testing requirements with separate exams written by teachers in its 250 districts rather than with one statewide test.

Dr. Johnson’s letter to Nebraska said that although locally written tests were permissible, the state had not shown it was holding all districts to a high standard.

Before announcing that decision, Dr. Johnson visited the Papillion-La Vista School District, south of Omaha.

Harlan H. Metschke, Papillion’s superintendent, said he had told Mr. Johnson that Nebraska’s tests helped teachers focus on students’ learning needs, unlike standardized tests, which compared students from one school with another.

“But federal officials have the mentality that there has to be one state test,” Mr. Metschke said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Memorandum to All Nebraskans from Doug Christensen, Commissioner of Education
Tuesday Jul 18, 2006

TO: All Nebraskans

FROM: Doug Christensen, Ph.D.
Commissioner of Education

RE: Statement of The Commissioner of Education Regarding State's Assessment System And Its Compliance With The Requirements Of NCLB

DATE: July 5, 2006

Today, we received word that our state assessment system, STARS, does not, at this time, meet the federal requirements for compliance with No Child Left Behind. According to the United States Department of Education (USDE), there are numerous criteria which Nebraska will have to meet in order to be approved. The USDE letter is posted on the Nebraska website or on the USDE website.

We have 20 days in which to challenge the findings, request a formal review of our concerns and submit additional data. We will challenge the findings. We have invested too much time, energy, expertise and resources to back away now. This decision by USDE is not labeling our system "rejected" or "failed." It is a statement of the work to be done to provide evidence that our system is valid, reliable and fair and that our system is in compliance with NCLB.

I am disappointed by the federal decision and disappointed by the way we have been treated by them. In fact, I cannot recall a professional issue in my over 40 years as an educator over which I have been so disappointed. This is not the way a partnership is run and not a way for anyone to be treated. If we treated our schools in a one-sided and mean-spirited way, we would be out of business. We would not even consider being so arbitrary and/or heavy-handed.

We feel blind-sided by the decision of the U. S. Department of Education. First, the decision is a blatant violation of the "partnership" around which this work was to be created and documented. Second, it is a violation of the process that was to be fair, open, and evidence-based. Third, it is a violation of past agreements reached. And fourth, it is a violation of the law itself.

First, the partnership, as claimed by USDE, was to provide the basis on which each state would be treated individually so that each state could "negotiate a way to yes." Each state was to be reviewed separately to reflect each state's unique context and policy environment.

The current partnership has flat-out rejected our request to fulfill an earlier agreement to produce a list of the concerns and issues and meet face-to-face before a decision was made. This partnership is about one partner that contributes less than 9% of the funding but leverages 100% of the accountability.

Second, the process of reviewing each state's plan was to use "peer reviews" which in our case were neither "peer-based" nor "reviews." The teams sent to our state did not reflect local knowledge of our policy or eductional context of the state. Further, the team did not represent individuals with expertise in local assessments. And, in the words of a peer reviewer, the teams were advised in their training to be as "nit picky" as possible.

The peer review process required the teams to review all of the documentation of each state. Nebrasks provided 6 large boxes of data and documentation. The documentation could not have been reviewed in its entirety. In fact, it appears that it was searched by the peer team for reasons to reject rather than reviewed for evidence to approve our model.

Third, past agreements have been ignored constituting changing the rules in the middle of the game. In 2003, then Secretary of Education Rod Paige visited Nebraska at the request of our congressional delegation adn Governor, Mike Johanns. Before the day concluded, the Governor asked the Secretary, "How much flexibility do you really have?" Secretary Paige replied, "I am not sure, but I want Nebraska's system to succeed and whatever flexibility is there, I will find it."

In addition, all states had to have plans approved by July 1, 2004. Our plan which included clear outlines of our local assessment model was approved by USDE. We have proceeded on the basis that our model would be approved if we could document its technical quality. I would challenge USDE that no state has done as much to document technical quality as Nebraska. Through our national panel and portfolio reviews, our annual independent evaluations, our independent studies of the data quality, and our independent assessment benchmarks, there is little more we could do. All of these studies and data acknowledge the high levels of technical quality and power of the STARS model.

Fourth, this decision is also a violation of the law itslef. In 1994, the forerunner to NCLB, the Improving America Schools ACT (IASA) was re-authorized and included "carve out" language for Nebraska and Iowa. This provision carries forward into NCLB but is now being ignored. Also, included in Section 1111 of NCLB is a provision for local assessments that is also being ignored.

The use of Peer Review guidance as a condition of compliance/regulation is also a clear violation of NCLB. Peer Review findings are to be guidance only, not regulation.

There is no explicit authority for USDE to withhold funds as a condition of forcing copliance. If an agency, such as Nebraska, is to get the work done to be in compliance, how is it to do that work when the resources to do it are being withheld? Withholding funds appears to be a clear violation of the NCLB provision that requires the federal government to fund the requirements of this Act.

In summary, it is time for USDE to be held accountable, too. USDE must be accountable for the consequences of the law which is a far stretch from the law's laudable intentions. THe intentions of the law are meaningless unless htey are matched by outcomes. How can a law be "good for kids" that demoralizes educators, devalues their work and is punative to schools?

This law has yet to demonstrate its good intentions. This law requires tremendous energy to be spent trying to make misaligned policy and practice work. This law ransoms assessment as an accountability policy when accountability policy should be defined as the amount of improveent realized.

I want assessment returned to the toolbox of teachers so they can use assessments to improve practice in the classroom.

We have tried to be partners. We acted in good faith in negotiating our way through the compliance requirements. We have been open, transparent and forthright.

It is time for USDE to be the partner it professes to be. It is time for USDE to stop trumping good and promising practices in schools by hiding behind the phrase "it's the law." It is time for USDE to come to the table in good faith. It is time for them to recognize the leadership role of states--state legislators, state boards of education, Governors and Chief State School Officers. It is time for them to play fair. It is time for them to accept the same accountability for evidence of good practice tha they demand of states. It is time to stop misrepresenting actions of states to the public and the media. It is time for USDE to stop changing the rules as they go.

While this is not the way we had hoped this would go, it is not a defeat or a step backwards. At best, it is place from which we move foward. At worst, it is a side step.

— Doug Christensen, Nebraska Commissioner of Education
Memorandum to All Nebraskans RE: Compliance with the Requirements of NCLB

Maine's use of SAT is expected to pass federal test

If you link to this article, there's interesting commentary on this by Maine locals. -Angela
Monday, July 24, 2006
Maine's use of SAT is expected to pass federal test

By BETH QUIMBY, Portland Press Herald Writer

With a deadline looming, Maine Department of Education officials say they are confident the federal government will raise the failing grades it gave the state for using the SAT to test high school student achievement.

State officials have until July 31 to demonstrate that the SAT adequately measures whether Maine high school students have mastered the Maine Learning Results, the state's learning standards.

If not, the department stands to lose up to $500,000 in annual federal administration funds that would be sent directly to Maine's school districts instead.

State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron doesn't expect that to happen. "I feel we are in very good shape," she said.

For the past month, education officials have been compiling evidence to prove their case. The process was set in motion when federal officials told Maine, after repeated warnings, it was one of only two states to flunk a federal review of the student performance tests used by all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The finding put the state out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a sweeping education reform law aimed at holding schools accountable for student performance. Thirty-four assessment systems were cited for inadequacies but received temporary approval. Ten were approved and another four were expected to be approved. Maine and Nebraska flunked.

While the federal department found shortcomings in the achievement tests given to non-English-speaking and special-education students in Maine, it was the SAT that was the major focus of concern.

The federal review determined that the questions on the SAT, a college entrance examination, did not match up with the state's learning standards. It also found that Maine education officials had failed to put the SAT through an independent review to determine whether it would work as a state achievement test.

Federal officials chastised Maine officials for failing to meet basic federal requirements and, in doing so, treating Maine students unfairly.

Maine started administering the SAT to high school juniors for the first time this year instead of the Maine Educational Assessment, a test tailored to Maine's Learning Results and now given to students only in grades three through eight.

Gendron pushed for the change, claiming the SAT would motivate more students to apply to college, a major goal of the department, and free more time for instruction. The SAT is a one-day test. MEAs are administered over several days.

The switch was criticized by some educators, including the Maine Counseling Association and the American Counseling Association, which argued that the SAT was designed to predict college success, not Maine students' mastery of the state's learning standards.

They also said it was unproven that using the SAT would encourage more students to apply to college.

Before the switch occurred, a committee was set up to look at a number of tests, such as the ACT, a competing college entrance test not widely used in New England, before settling on the SAT. It is one of several college entrance examinations managed by the College Board, a nonprofit group of about 4,500 higher education institutions.

Gendron said the ACT was rejected because it did not appear to align as well with Maine's learning standards. Moreover, Maine's public universities use the SAT for admission and 75 percent of Maine's roughly 71,000 high school students were already taking the SAT annually, compared to fewer than 5 percent who take the ACT.

Maine education officials approached the College Board, which launched its own study to determine whether the SAT would measure Maine's learning standards adequately. The College Board's study concluded that more questions would have to be added to achieve an adequate alignment with the state's learning standards.

Maine officials then signed a $1 million contract with the College Board to administer the test without putting the SAT through an independent review, a move criticized by federal reviewers.

Jacqueline Soychak, who oversees federal programs at Maine's education department, said her department didn't conduct an independent review because No Child Left Behind didn't require such a step.

Michael Sentance, regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education, said an independent review just makes good sense.

"To think that there wouldn't be an independent review is a little bit curious. One would think Maine would want it for its own purposes, rather than take the word of the vendor," Sentance said.

The Maine education department later hired Norman Webb, a researcher with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and an authority on matching standards to assessment tests, to do an independent study.

His preliminary findings delivered in April showed more than 40 areas in which the SAT did not align with the state's learning standards.

After Maine was threatened with federal sanctions last month, Webb was asked to fast-track his study. Valerie Seaberg, a state education department spokeswoman, said Webb's latest findings determined that Maine would have to add one new question on the reading section of the SAT and at least 11 more questions to the mathematics section.

Seaberg said the education department has not determined how it will add questions but probably would hire a company such as Measured Progress of Dover, N.H., which designs the MEAs, to do the work. The cost has not been determined.

She said the additional questions would be given on the same day as the SAT. The state already was notified that it would have to come up with a science test for high school students, which it probably will administer on the same day as well. Maine probably will use a science test that is being designed by other New England states, Seaberg said.

Meanwhile, Gendron is so confident that the state will satisfy federal officials, she is forging ahead with next month's meeting of state educators, mostly high school teachers, to translate SAT scores into achievement levels that indicate whether a student is failing, meeting or exceeding the state's learning standards.

She has already set next year's SAT administration dates and last week announced a deal with the College Board to provide SAT preparation courses to all Maine high school students.

Gendron also emphasized her confidence in a letter to school administrators she sent out a week ago.

"I want to be very clear that the SAT will be used as our state's grade 11 assessment for the foreseeable future," she wrote.

Once Maine provides the additional evidence, the federal department will conduct another review to determine whether Maine proved its case.

If Maine fails again, the federal government will start withholding some funds from the state education department until it can satisfy requirements. State officials said they didn't know how long the new review would take.


SAT: A college entrance examination that measures reasoning skills, widely used by higher education institutions to predict a student's likelihood of success in college. More information on Maine's switch to the SAT is available online at

COLLEGE BOARD: The nonprofit group of about 4,500 colleges and universities that manages the SAT and its other college entrance examinations, such as advanced placement examinations.

MAINE LEARNING RESULTS: A set of standards Maine high school graduates are expected to meet in various subjects, adopted by the Legislature in 1997 and now under revision. More information is available online at

MAINE EDUCATIONAL ASSESSMENT: The name of the achievement test given to all students in grades three through eight to determine student performance of Maine Learning Results. More information is available online at

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

91% of seniors pass state exam [in California]

91% of seniors pass state exam
Exit test keeps estimated 5% from graduating
- Nanette Asimov, Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writers
Saturday, July 22, 2006

The final tally of high school seniors who failed the statewide exit exam is in: 40,173 students -- more than half of whom would have otherwise graduated this year -- did not pass the test, the state Department of Education announced Friday.

Passing the exit exam was a graduation requirement for the first time this spring, causing anguish for students who had satisfied all other graduation requirements except the test of basic math and English skills.

Based on a poll of the state's largest districts, an estimated 5 percent of all 2006 seniors ultimately did not graduate solely because they couldn't pass the exam, state officials said.

Those students -- who would have qualified for graduation in prior years but leave high school empty-handed this year -- are at the center of a lawsuit that seeks to nullify the exit exam on constitutional grounds. The case goes to a state appeals court for a hearing on Tuesday.

Many of those students tried to pass the test in May, when it was given for the last time before graduation in June. The new results show that only 1,759 seniors managed to pass at that time, compared with 4,542 who succeeded in the March administration of the test.

Statewide, 9 percent of the Class of 2006 failed the exit exam, while seniors at the Bay Area's largest school districts fared worse. In San Francisco, 12 percent of seniors failed, while 13 percent did not pass in the West Contra Costa Unified School District and 43 percent failed in the Oakland Unified School District.

Hispanic and African American students were more likely to fail than their white and Asian counterparts. Through May, 97 percent of white students and 95 percent of Asian students had passed, compared with 85 percent of Hispanic students and 83 percent of African Americans.

Because it takes two months to score the tests, students who passed in May and were otherwise qualified to graduate will now receive their diplomas, many of them in special summer ceremonies organized by their districts. San Francisco Unified, for example, will hand out diplomas to all eligible students in a ceremony later this month.

The law gives students six chances to pass the exit exam between 10th and 12th grade. But state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who wrote the exit exam legislation when he was a state senator in 1999, has said there is no statute of limitations for students who want to continue trying to pass the exam and earn a diploma.

For now, in addition to the regularly scheduled test dates, the state Legislature approved funding in the recently signed budget for two additional administrations of the exam for the class of 2006. The first is next week, and the second is on two Saturdays in December -- English and math on separate days -- to accommodate adult school or independent study students who work.

"I urge these students to continue to work in summer school, take a fifth year of high school, or study in adult school or community college to acquire those important skills in English and math," O'Connell said.

Many students are doing just that.

Iris Padilla, 17, who did not pass the exam despite having satisfied all other graduation requirements at Richmond High, studies English twice a week at Contra Costa Community College. She plans to take the English portion of the test on Tuesday and the math portion on Wednesday.

"I know I'm not going to pass," Iris said.

Like 41 percent of those who haven't passed, Iris speaks little English. She was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Mexico. Now, living with her Spanish-speaking mother in Richmond, she is torn between her need to learn English and her fear of speaking the unfamiliar words.

"It's embarrassing," she said.

The Oakland school district, which chose to give the test in March instead of May, gave all failing students the opportunity to take two free courses at Laney College, one for exit exam preparation and the other any class of their choosing that would count as college credit. Those students are eligible to take the exam next week.

In San Francisco, 199 of the 4,400 seniors in county and district schools didn't graduate because they couldn't pass the test. About 30 took a summer school course, and a total of 80 students have signed up to take the July administration. As with the rest of the state, many who failed were English learners.

"I think (the state) could have done a better job giving us more support for the English language learners," said interim San Francisco Unified Superintendent Gwen Chan.

After all the confusion and legal tussles over whether the exit exam would be enforced this year, Chan said she hopes the class of 2007 will have a "more positive and hopeful experience."

"This is the first year it's played out," she said. "It's been a learning experience. But the saga goes on."

Many class of 2006 students who didn't pass the exam are pinning their hopes for a diploma on a class-action lawsuit that claims the exam violates the state constitution. The case will be heard Tuesday before the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

In May, an Alameda County Superior Court judge shot down the exit exam, but the state Supreme Court overturned the ruling at O'Connell's request. Students who are suing the state say they were not taught the material on the test, nor did they have qualified teachers, textbooks and other materials needed to learn.

What's in the exam
The California High School Exit Exam consists of two sections. Students begin taking the test as sophomores and are allowed to take it as many as six times before graduation day. There is no time limit during the administration of the test. The exam includes:

-- Math content to eighth or ninth grade, including statistics, probability, data analysis, algebra, geometry and number sense including knowledge of fractions, decimals, and rational and irrational numbers.

-- English/language arts content to the 10th grade, including vocabulary, word origin and reading comprehension. Students are also required to write an essay.

Source: California Department of Education

E-mail Nanette Asimov at and Jill Tucker at

Exit exam results

The final pass rates
are in for the class of 2006:
All who Percent
seniors* passed passed

California 436,374 396,201 91%

San Francisco United 4,404 3,863 88%

Oakland Unified 2,350 1,350 57%

West Contra Costa Unified 1,756 1,524 87%

*Note: Special education students, included in the total number of seniors,
exempted from having to pass the exam this year and did not necessarily
participate in
all administrations of the exam.
Source: California Department of Education, school districts
The Chronicle

Page B - 1
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

Not all suspect schools on TAKS list

Not all suspect schools on TAKS list
Exclusive: Firm flagged 167 more, but state not looking into it

12:16 AM CDT on Sunday, July 23, 2006

By JOSHUA BENTON and HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News

The list of schools suspected of cheating is longer than Texas education officials have reported – and those officials say they aren't interested in tracking down the latest suspects.

A Dallas Morning News analysis has found that at least 167 unidentified schools were flagged as potential cheaters by Caveon, the company Texas hired to hunt for TAKS cheaters. That's in addition to the 442 schools named by state officials. None of the other schools have been notified that they are on the list.

Texas Education Agency officials say they don't know which schools they are – and they have no plans to find out.

Also Online
Graphic: Tracking down cheaters

State seems to have had right to see cheat data

"The only list of schools we have is the list that has been made public," said TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman. "That's the list we plan to work with."

Superintendents with schools that have been named have complained that the TEA hasn't given them all the information they need to investigate Caveon's findings. But at least they know their scores are suspicious.

"That is so grossly unfair," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "If you're going to accuse someone of cheating, look them in the eye and do it."

Caveon, a Utah-based data-analysis company, was hired by Texas officials last year to examine the students' 2005 scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

That followed a series of stories by The News that found evidence of cheating on the TAKS in schools throughout the state.

The News discovered the missing schools when analyzing data in one of the appendixes of Caveon's May report to the TEA. Caveon withholds many of the details of how it performs its analysis, citing proprietary reasons. But in the appendix, the company outlines what it found in one high school where it suspects cheating on the math TAKS.

The report doesn't identify the school by name and lists its students only as anonymous ID numbers. But The News was able to determine that the school is Westbury High School in Houston by matching the student scores to state data. Westbury is the only school in Texas that had student scores matching the data in the appendix.

Houston school officials declined to comment, as did a Caveon spokesman.

Westbury had 1,431 students take the math TAKS in 2005. Of those, 185 had answer sheets Caveon considered suspiciously similar to at least one other student's. Caveon said the chance of that happening at random was less than 1 in 4 million million billion billion billion. That's a 1 with 40 zeroes after it.

The analysis also found several groups of Westbury students who had identical answer sheets – even getting all their unlikely wrong answers wrong in exactly the same way. Caveon also found an unusually high level of erasures at Westbury.

One Westbury junior – known only as No. 3561511 in the report – made a seemingly miraculous gain. As a sophomore, she performed very poorly on the math TAKS, outscoring only about 20 percent of the state's test takers. But as a junior, her score zoomed up – beating that of about 73 percent of Texas students.

No. 3561511 was helped by the 23 wrong answers on her answer sheet that were erased and replaced with correct answers. She ended up with an answer sheet identical to those of three of her peers and almost identical to three others.

In its report, Caveon is confident that there was wrongdoing at Westbury. "It appears likely that there are instances of testing irregularities at this school," it states. Caveon also writes that of all the Texas schools where it found math irregularities, Westbury was the seventh-most suspicious.

But the TEA never told Houston officials that Westbury's math scores were suspicious. That's because TEA officials didn't know themselves.

Dual analyses

The core of the confusion is that Caveon actually performed two different but complementary analyses of the state's test scores. One looked for suspicious test scores in each classroom. The other looked for problems throughout a school.

Both analyses examined the same scores. But they had different standards for how much suspicious activity it took for a classroom or school to be flagged.

Because classrooms have fewer students than whole schools, it takes a higher incidence of suspicious activity for a classroom to be flagged than for an entire school.

For example, imagine a classroom with only 10 students. If two of those students had scores Caveon considered suspect – 20 percent of the total – that probably wouldn't be enough for the classroom to be flagged as suspicious. That's because, when dealing with such small numbers, two strange test scores could result from random chance or "noise" in the data.

But imagine a school with 1,000 students. If 200 of those students had suspicious scores – still 20 percent of the total – that would in many cases be enough for Caveon to declare the school's performance suspect. Statistically, it is less likely that 200 strange scores would be attributable to chance.

As a result, Caveon was more likely to flag an entire school with strange scores than a classroom. Of the 73,793 classrooms whose scores it analyzed, the company flagged 702 – about 1 percent. But Caveon flagged 609 of the 7,112 schools it analyzed – more than 8 percent.

Short list explained

The problem is that the list of 442 suspect schools that the TEA distributed to districts includes only the schools that had classrooms flagged – not those flagged as an entire campus.

There is probably some overlap between the two lists. For example, in the case of Westbury High School, Houston officials have been told that there was potential cheating on the science and social studies tests in 11th-grade classrooms. But the TEA never informed them about the problems Caveon found schoolwide in the math test results.

At a minimum, 167 schools were flagged by Caveon as possible cheaters and still have no idea. According to the Caveon report, the number of those schools could be as high as 394.

Lisa Chandler, the state's director of assessment, responded to questions about the missing list via e-mail. She said the state didn't obtain the list of schools Caveon considered suspicious because "the list based on the classrooms seemed to be the most useful for districts to use in following up the results."

She cites a section of the Caveon report that suggests the suspicious classroom scores may be a good place to begin investigations. "That is, those schools where exceptions were detected in multiple classrooms might be investigated first," the report states.

But the TEA has already committed to investigate a number of schools regardless of how many classrooms were flagged. Last month, it announced plans to investigate 14 schools on the Caveon list that were also due cash bonuses from the state for their outstanding test scores.

The agency doesn't know whether any other schools on the bonus list might have been flagged by Caveon's schoolwide analysis. And it has no plans to find out which schools are on the list or how egregious their possible cheating might have been.

That means that even schools with what Caveon considers highly suspicious scores won't be identified or investigated.

"The schools that TEA intends to address would be the ones where classrooms were flagged in the list that's been provided," Ms. Marchman said.



Online at:

More than 90% of 3rd-, 5th-graders pass TAKS promotion test

More than 90% of 3rd-, 5th-graders pass TAKS promotion test
Students who failed will likely advance with parents' appeal

07:34 AM CDT on Thursday, July 20, 2006

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – More than 95 percent of third-graders and nearly 91 percent of fifth-graders have been promoted after passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills this year, but thousands of other students who failed the exam are depending on appeals by their parents to avoid flunking.

Results released Wednesday by the Texas Education Agency indicated that 13,178 third-graders could not pass the reading section of the TAKS after three opportunities – a state requirement to be promoted to the fourth grade.

However, state law also allows parents to appeal their child's retention, and most parents do. A student who has failed the TAKS can still be promoted with the approval of the principal, teacher and parent.

Past studies have indicated the majority of third-graders who fail the TAKS are allowed to move to the fourth grade with their peers because of parental appeals.

Fifth-graders are required to pass both the math and reading sections of the exam to be promoted. A total of 26,480 students in fifth grade (9 percent) failed the reading section of the TAKS, while 21,019 students (7.1 percent) failed the math section.

A majority of fifth-graders who failed also are expected to get around the test requirement through appeals by their parents.

Passing percentages remained about the same as last year for third-graders, while there was slight improvement for fifth-graders. Scores on Spanish versions of the exams improved for both third- and fifth-graders.

This was the second year that fifth-graders fell under a state law aimed at curtailing social promotion – the practice of automatically passing students regardless of achievement – by requiring them to pass the state achievement test. It was the fourth year that third-graders have had to meet the tougher promotion standard.

Stakes on the TAKS are highest for third- and fifth-graders, who must pass to be promoted, and for high school seniors, who must pass to be awarded a diploma.

A study by the Texas Education Agency last year indicated that the number of retentions in third grade has increased only slightly under the new promotion standards, which went into effect in 2003. The study showed that 46.4 percent of students who failed the test actually repeated the third grade. The rest were promoted after their parents successfully appealed.

State education officials have attributed the low failure rate to teacher training and reading intervention programs that begin in kindergarten and continue through the early elementary grades.



Here are the passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills for the past year. Third-graders must pass the TAKS reading test to be promoted, while fifth-graders must pass both the reading and math tests:

Ethnic or racial group 3rd-grade reading 5th-grade reading 5th-grade math
Blacks 91% 85% 85%
Hispanics 94% 87% 91%
Whites 98% 97% 97%
Asians 99% 97% 99%

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Online at:

Bringing Human Rights Home

This piece by ALAN JENKINS & LARRY COX appeared in the June issue of THE NATION. It's a really powerful piece that considers the utility of internationa standards of justice. I found it pretty eye-opening. -Angela

[from the June 27, 2005 issue]

On March 1 the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Constitution forbids executing juvenile offenders. In putting to death people who were minors when they committed their crime, the majority noted, "The United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty." In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia attacked the majority's consideration of laws and practices outside the United States, saying that the consensus of "like-minded foreigners" had no bearing in understanding our own Constitution. One month later, in a speech to the American Society of International Law, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded that US courts should pay more attention, not less, to international norms. She added that "the notion that it is improper to look beyond the borders of the United States in grappling with hard questions has a certain kinship to the view that the US Constitution is a document essentially frozen in time as of the date of its ratification."

The increasingly noisy debate on the High Court over the proper role of international standards of justice in our domestic law and policy reflects a broader development that is gaining momentum around the country: Human rights are coming home. Advocates are discovering how the fight for justice and freedom here can be waged through human rights, the international ethical and legal standards that the United States helped to create more than fifty-five years ago and that it is officially committed to respect and uphold. In so doing, this emerging human rights movement is forced to confront deliberate, longstanding and nonpartisan policies aimed at insuring that human rights are reserved for external use only.

Unlike many governments, the United States never underestimated the power of human rights. Led by Eleanor Roosevelt, this country played a critical role in the adoption, on December 10, 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which for the first time bound all governments to a common standard of conduct. Ever since then the United States has invoked human rights standards, often aggressively if highly selectively, to criticize other governments.

Yet from the very beginning, leaders from both political parties sought to insure that the human rights the United States championed abroad could never be employed as instruments of change at home. One concern was the possibility that the Declaration's recognition of economic and social rights--the right to a job, education, adequate food, shelter and healthcare--could be used to expose the large holes in the US social safety net. The driving fear, however, was the threat that human rights standards posed to the system of US racial apartheid. Even the treaty against genocide, adopted at about the same time as the Declaration, was blocked successfully by Southern politicians because of its potential use in the fight against lynching in the United States. As Professor Carol Anderson documents in her book Eyes Off the Prize, one of Eleanor Roosevelt's less celebrated roles was to work against any enforcement powers for UN human rights bodies and thus assure Southern Democrats that racial segregation had nothing to fear from human rights.

Under a deal made by the Eisenhower Administration, the United States would for forty years refuse to ratify a single one of the human rights treaties it had helped to inspire. When some treaties, such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, were finally ratified in the 1990s it was with the explicit condition that, absent specific legislation, these treaties could not be enforced in domestic courts. This policy of "US exceptionalism" effectively deterred civil rights and social justice organizations from taking advantage of the language, laws, methodologies, mechanisms, possible alliances and unifying vision offered by the international human rights framework and movement. American-based human rights organizations put most of their focus on every country except the United States, thus reinforcing the view that human rights were of relevance only to other countries.

In recent years, however, social justice activists, public interest attorneys and even federal judges have begun to discover human rights--and to bring them home. One promising development is the recent creation of the US Human Rights Network, a membership group that already includes more than 150 mostly community-based organizations. The network is dedicated to promoting US accountability to universal human rights standards, connecting domestic social justice movements with international movements for human rights, and building a "human rights culture" in America ("Something Inside So Strong," the network's resource guide, is available at

In San Francisco, WILD for Human Rights has been pioneering in its use of a human rights framework. WILD (Women's Institute for Leadership Development) led a highly creative campaign that convinced the City Council in 1998 to adopt the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as part of its municipal law and to conduct a "gender analysis" of city operations to determine their impact on women. The campaign included organizing a public hearing in which residents who had experienced discrimination and community leaders testified about the practical impact that adopting CEDAW would have. The ordinance that emerged required the city not only to refrain from discriminating itself but also to "take all appropriate measures" to prevent discrimination by others--including gender-based violence--within the city. An analysis of the Department of Public Works, for example, led to new, nontraditional employment opportunities for women and more streetlights in unsafe neighborhoods. And in El Paso, Texas, the Border Network for Human Rights, which works to curb abuses against immigrants, has had similar success with a human rights approach. Within a year of adopting such a strategy, the network had established ten local Committees for the Defense of Human Rights, with more than 250 families as members.

These activists join groups, like the Indian Law Resource Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, that have long used human rights principles in the legal context. And they mirror a change in the way that international human rights organizations based in the United States think about their own country's obligations. Global Rights, for example, is a twenty-five-year-old human rights group with offices around the world. Its work now includes the United States, with a focus on protecting the rights of migrant farm and domestic workers, addressing racial disparities in criminal justice and promoting the right to equal education. Human Rights Watch, too, has turned its attention to the domestic context, exposing violations of workers' rights in meatpacking and other industries.

Also spurring the nation's tentative steps toward embracing human rights is the work of scholars in the legal academy. At the University of Chicago Law School, Cass Sunstein is forcefully making the case that the notion of economic human rights is a part of our nation's political, legal and cultural legacy. His recent book The Second Bill of Rights details how much of the international human rights system flowed from the US experience of the Great Depression, as well as from core American values of freedom and human dignity. Just as legal scholars like Charles Hamilton Houston laid the theoretical groundwork for the rebirth of the equal protection clause in Brown v. Board of Education a half-century ago, so Sunstein and others are developing and testing the bases for human rights to assume their proper role in US law.

This legal movement is beginning to bear fruit--notably through some recent Supreme Court decisions. Over the past two decades the Rehnquist Court has rolled back a range of constitutional and civil rights protections. Yet in several landmark cases during its last two terms, the Court has vindicated fundamental freedoms, based partly on international human rights principles.

In Lawrence v. Texas, in which it protected consensual gay sexuality as within Americans' right to privacy, the Court cited a European Court of Human Rights decision as persuasive authority. In its decision upholding affirmative action as a tool for advancing diversity and addressing discrimination, Justice Ginsburg cited the convention against racial discrimination in her concurring opinion. In holding that executing people with mental retardation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the Court looked, in part, to international practices and standards of decency. And in its recent decision overturning the juvenile death penalty, the Court found relevant that every country save the United States and Somalia had ratified the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlaws the practice.

These legal references have not gone unnoticed by critics of US human rights. House Republicans have introduced a resolution declaring that the "meaning of the Constitution of the United States should not be based on judgments, laws, or pronouncements of foreign institutions unless such foreign judgments, laws or pronouncements inform an understanding of the original meaning of the Constitution of the United States." A similar resolution has been introduced in the Senate.

What difference would it make if we in the United States began to take human rights seriously? Certainly, constitutional rights are central to our democracy. But reinvigorating a human rights culture alongside our constitutional one would advance American values of opportunity, fairness and dignity that have languished in recent years.

Think of what it would mean to the 45 million Americans without health insurance if the United States respected the right to "the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In South Africa, since a landmark Constitutional Court ruling, the right to health has meant that low-income, HIV-positive women who are pregnant have had access to antiretroviral drugs to prevent transmission of the virus to their newborn babies. We can only imagine what the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic might have been in the United States if we had made human rights principles central to our early response.

And consider our nation's criminal justice policies. In 2002, for the first time in our history, the nation's prison and jail population exceeded 2 million people--almost two-thirds of whom are people of color. Yet when the Supreme Court heard a 1987 case asserting that race played a determinative role in who receives the death penalty in Georgia, it assumed the accuracy of that claim, then went on to rule that this form of unequal protection did not violate the Constitution. In contrast, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination--which President Johnson signed in 1966 and the Senate ratified in 1994--requires governments to eliminate and redress "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise on an equal footing of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life." There is no question that Georgia's racially biased use of the death penalty violated that standard, which focuses on government's obligation to remedy injustice rather than a defendant's obligation to prove individual discriminatory intent.

Just as social justice at home suffers in the absence of respect for human rights, the cost of US exceptionalism to our credibility abroad is immeasurable. It is especially great at a time when our government is pursuing the hearts and minds of the world's nations to combat global terrorism. Moreover, legitimate US criticism of countries like China and North Korea for human rights violations is unlikely to get a fair hearing when the United States has renounced its own treaty obligations to respect the rights of Guantánamo Bay prisoners under the Third Geneva Convention. Until it was recently rebuked by the Supreme Court, the Bush Administration asserted the right to imprison US citizens indefinitely as "enemy combatants" without charging them with a crime and without affording them access to impartial review or an attorney; it still claims the authority to subject foreign nationals to such treatment. The United States has properly called for international action to address the human rights catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan. Yet it tried to "unsign" the International Criminal Court treaty, which was designed to address precisely that kind of gross human rights violation.

To be sure, human rights are no magic bullet. Many countries have signed and ratified all the major human rights instruments, then routinely ignored them. Bringing human rights home to the United States would spur debate, disagreement and dissent. But whatever the leanings of the leaders in power at any given time, Americans have a tradition of respect for the rule of law. Government officials would oppose rights enforcement when inconvenient or embarrassing, and judges would disagree about the fundamental meaning of various human rights--just as they do with constitutional rights. But ultimately, they would be our law and could be enforced in ways that would change lives at home and be an inspiration abroad.

There is no question that international human rights remain a foreign concept today in many--perhaps most--communities around the United States. Yet they are no more foreign than the right to vote was in Mississippi before courageous civil rights activists and ordinary people began standing up to hatred and violence in an organized way. They are no more foreign than the right to a safe and legal abortion was in Texas when reproductive rights activists began laying the groundwork for Roe v. Wade. They are no more foreign than the right to organize for decent working conditions was in the auto plants of Detroit or the mines of West Virginia before workers took up that cause in mass numbers. That the right to vote, the right to organize and the right to reproductive freedom are under attack right now emphasizes the challenge facing all those who care about social justice, as well as the new energy and direction that human rights can bring to those struggles.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Nearly 6 percent of students in Texas repeat the first grade...

This is alarming.... -Angela

July 23, 2006, 1:05PM
Nearly 6 percent of students in Texas repeat the first grade, raising costs and controversy

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Youngsters headed to first grade next month shouldn't take the assignment lightly: A whopping 1 in 9 students at some Houston schools won't earn his way into second grade.

Statewide, 6 percent of first-graders not in special education are held back annually — roughly twice the retention rate of any other elementary or middle school grade. And the percentage of failing first-graders has reached double digits in about 80 of Texas' 1,040 school districts, including Pasadena, Aldine and Houston, according to a 2005 state report.

Holding back nearly 21,000 Texas first-graders cost the state roughly $185 million in 2004-05.

"It is expensive, and it's a problem. We've got to find ways of addressing and meeting their needs," said Pasadena Superintendent Kirk Lewis, whose district's 12.4 percent first-grade retention rate is among the highest in Harris County.

The reason for the first-grade logjam is simple: Too many children — particularly those from poor families — arrive unprepared to do the work, struggle to read and are unable to catch up with their peers in one school year, experts said. Free prekindergarten programs for children from low-income families so far have seemingly failed to reverse that trend. And some researchers and educators are questioning the wisdom of Texas' hard-line stance against social promotion.

Making sure students succeed in the first grade — where they tackle the fundamentals of reading — could be critical in Texas' lowering its high school dropout rate and meeting federal achievement standards. High school dropouts are five times more likely to have repeated a grade than graduates; students who are retained twice almost always end up dropping out, according to national research.

Numerous goals

First grade isn't exactly child's play.
A 38-page curriculum asks youngsters to identify rhymes; use patterns to count by twos, fives and tens; observe and record the weather; create calendars; and identify historical figures who have exemplified good citizenship — among numerous other objectives.

Some districts expect students to read about 60 words a minute by the end of the year — a feat that trips up many. To solve the problem of high retention rates, schools need to find more effective ways of teaching children to read, experts said.

"We keep looking at the failure rate and acting like it's a problem with the children when it's a problem with the system," said Marion Blank, co-director of the developmental neuropsychiatry program at Columbia University and author of The Reading Remedy.

Blank called the double-digit failure rates of some Houston school districts "absolutely an alarm bell."

Much like dropouts, students who are retained in first grade in Texas are about twice as likely to be poor, male and either black or Hispanic than they are to be affluent, female and Anglo or Asian.

Those statistics hold true in the Houston Independent School District, where 93 percent of students who repeated the first grade in 2003-04 qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Black students in that first grade were four times as likely as white students to be retained; Hispanic students were three times as likely.

One-third of the 1,752 HISD students who repeated first grade in 2003-04 had been enrolled in the school district's prekindergarten program three years earlier.

Statewide, districts with above-average poverty rates, including Houston, Aldine and North Forest, also have above-average retention rates. Students who come from poor families are less likely to know their letters or numbers before they arrive on campus.

"A lot of our students come to school without the life experiences," said Wanda Bamberg, assistant superintendent of the Aldine school district, which held back 11.1 percent of its first-graders in 2004-05. "They come in with considerable gaps."

Social promotion issue

School districts are adding summer programs, extending the school day and rethinking how they teach reading to try to help these struggling 6- and 7-year-olds. But when the efforts fail, teachers are faced with one of the most controversial decisions in education: whether to hold the child back a grade or "socially promote" struggling students to keep them with their peers.
Educators on either side of the social promotion debate can point to studies that appear to back their opinion.

"It's the classic pendulum, and over the last 30 years it has swung back and forth," said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of On the Success of Failure.

According to Alexander's research, first-grade retention rates reached 15.3 percent for the District of Columbia in 1979-80 and 20 percent for Arizona in 1985-86. In the 1990s, first-grade retention rates in the 19 states that Alexander surveyed ranged from Vermont's 1.9 percent to Washington, D.C.'s 12.9 percent. Texas was in the middle of the pack.

But Texas' rate has been on the rise. It increased 20 percent — from 5 percent in 1997-98 to 6 percent in 2004-05. And the 61 school districts in the Houston region have seen a 20 percent jump in their rate since the mid-1990s.

"There's now a desire not to promote kids to the next level if they don't have the skills to go to the next level. That's really different than it was 10 years ago," said Karen Soehnge, the Houston school district's chief academic officer.

Presidents favor retention

Over the past decade, former President Clinton, President George W. Bush and other politicians have championed retention, saying it's a better option than promoting students before they're ready. As Texas governor, Bush pushed for laws that now require students at certain grade levels (but not first grade) to pass state exams before moving on.
Yet studies have repeatedly shown that students who are retained never catch up academically and are more likely to misbehave, dislike school and feel badly about themselves than other students, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

La Porte grandmother Sharon Sims cried as she considered sending her grandson Roger Hight back to first grade last fall.

Even though he had been promoted, Roger's first month in the second grade at College Park Elementary was miserable. Teachers kept him out of physical education and other fun classes so that he could spend more time learning to read. In September, she decided her grandson should be moved back.

"Oh my gosh, I cried. I knew he needed it, but it was tough," Sims said. "I felt like I was a failure. He was not understanding how to read at all."

A year later, Sims said she's sure she made the right decision. Even though her grandson's older than most of his classmates, he's now in much better shape academically.

Some educators say that if a child must be held back, it's better to do it in kindergarten, first or second grade.

"There's an informal rule that earlier is better," said Jason Downer, a research scientist at the University of Virginia with expertise in the transition into first grade.

A study by University of Houston sociology professor Gary Dworkin showed that students who were held back because they failed Texas' standardized test went on to greater academic and social success.

"Higher retention rates, when it's done very early, ends up to be somewhat beneficial to the kids, as opposed to doing nothing or to socially promoting them and hoping they pick up the material," Dworkin said.

"The best we could say is that it was not harmful in ways that earlier studies conveyed," Dworkin said. "Retention is expensive. If a child continues through 12th grade, it's an additional year of public schooling. It also means schools will grow in size simply because some portion of kids don't move on."

But other studies concluded that children who are held back in early grades eventually suffer.

Students retained during a two-decade study in Baltimore didn't show short-term effects of repeating a grade, but they still tended to drop out out of high school at much higher rates than their classmates, Alexander said.

He encourages schools to look at creative options including "partial promotion" — keeping students with their peer group in most subjects but providing remediation in the subjects that are troubling.

A successful program

In 1993-94, Texas piloted a $5 million Retention Reduction Program to try to help 10,000 struggling first-graders. After the students in the program spent an extra month in the summer receiving intense remediation, 92 percent of them were ready for second grade.
The program cost $517 per student, a small fraction of what it costs to send them back to first grade.

Because of its success, the state now offers extra funding to schools that provide summer classes to elementary-age students.

The La Porte school district launched a summer academy for first-graders this year. About 50 students — some of whom were being promoted and some of whom were being held back — spent the month working on phonics, vocabulary and comprehension.

Eight-year-old Cory Snyder said the extra class time was a big help.

"Reading was pretty hard for me when I started," said Cory, who will start second grade at College Park in August. "I used to get worse at it, but I kept trying."

Despite the initiative, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the state is concerned that the retention rate is creeping back up.

She thinks educators might be more willing to hold students back early to better prepare them for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which students must pass to be promoted from the third and fifth grades.

HISD's strict policy

HISD leaders say their retention rates are higher than average — 10.2 percent for first-graders — because they've spelled out even more stringent promotion standards.
To pass first grade, HISD students must earn at least a 70 percent in their course work, pass a reading exam of common words and score within at least one grade level on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test of their actual placement.

"We're using a different standard in HISD," Soehnge said. "We will have a higher retention rate as a result."

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said HISD's strict policy is good for children.

"Some of the researchers disagree, but many agree that social promotion is bad for kids, and retaining them and making sure they learn the material is important," he said.

Even with the higher standards, though, Soehnge said HISD hopes to make sure that every youngster who qualifies — those who come from poor families or who are learning English — has a spot in a full-day prekindergarten program.

"I really believe over time, we'll be able to lower those retention rates," she said.

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