Thursday, December 30, 2004

Celebrated School Accused of Cheating

Exclusive: TAKS results too good to be true at Houston elementaries

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

Houston's Wesley Elementary may be the most celebrated school in Texas.

When George W. Bush, running for governor in 1994, wanted to declare
education his No. 1 priority, he went to Wesley, where desperately poor
students outscored children in the wealthiest suburbs.

When Oprah Winfrey wanted to promote a school that "defied the odds," she
took her cameras to Wesley, which has been the subject of numerous
flattering profiles..

But a Dallas Morning News investigation has found strong evidence that at
least some of the success at Wesley and two affiliated schools come from

"You're expected to cheat there," said Donna Garner, a former teacher at
Wesley who said her fellow teachers instructed her on how to give students
answers while administering tests. "There's no way those scores are real."

The News ' analysis found troubling gaps in test scores at Wesley, Highland
Heights, and Osborne elementaries, which are all in the Acres Homes
neighborhood in Houston. Scores swung wildly from year to year. Schools made
jarring test-score leaps from mediocre to stellar in a year's time.

After The News shared its findings with Houston officials Thursday,
Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra issued a written statement. "We have
reviewed the anomalies in the test scores of the Acres Home schools as
pointed out by The News, and we agree that these anomalies identify
performance that is highly questionable." Also Online

Allegations go back to 2003

If the test scores are to be believed, students at those schools lose much
of their academic abilities as soon as they leave elementary school.

In 2003, fifth-graders in the three elementaries fared extremely well on the
reading Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Collectively, they ranked
in the top 10 percent of all Texas schools – outscoring high-performing
suburban schools in places such as Grapevine, Lewisville and Allen. Math
above average

The fifth-graders' math scores were less spectacular but still slightly
above the state average.

But a year later, the scores of those same students came crashing down. When
they were sixth-graders at M.C. Williams Middle School, they finished in the
bottom 10 percent of the state in both reading and math.

A drop-off of that scale is extremely rare in education. According to The
News' analysis, no Texas school saw as large a score drop from fifth to
sixth grade as the Acres Homes schools did in reading.

AP In the 1990s, the Wesley Elementary method of Direct Instruction was
cited the school as proof that urban schools could excel without increases
in funding.

The evidence is not all statistical. Several former teachers and an
ex-principal say cheating on standardized tests was an expected part of life
at Wesley.

"There are some good kids there, and the teachers are teaching, but the kids
are not all Rhodes scholars," said a former Wesley principal who asked not
to be identified, fearing retribution from Houston ISD. "There's no way they
can produce those test scores. That's absurd. They get to middle school, and
they can barely write their names."

Wesley is one of three elementary schools in the Acres Homes Coalition,
named after the poor neighborhood they share about northwest of downtown.

The neighborhood's schools were underachievers for years. But in the 1970s,
a new principal named Thaddeus Lott arrived at Wesley. He instituted a
strict curriculum called Direct Instruction, a highly scripted teaching
method that emphasizes repetition, memorization and teaching kids the basic
sounds that make up words. Quickly, the school's scores went from abysmal to

Wesley's high test scores prompted several low-level cheating investigations
involving specific teachers. But none of them found conclusive evidence of
cheating. Dr. Lott said the school was being unfairly targeted because of
its success.

The conflict became the subject of a 1991 segment on ABC's PrimeTime Live,
in which Dr. Lott accused administrators of not promoting him because he's
black. The segment argued that "highly paid bureaucrats who refuse to
believe in [Acres Homes] children" were unfairly harassing Wesley.

The ABC piece made Dr. Lott a national education star. He in particular
became a hero to conservative education reformers, who applauded his use of
the Direct Instruction and cited the school as proof that urban schools
could excel without increases in funding. It became common to see principals
and superintendents from other districts on the Wesley campus, searching for
the school's secrets to success.

When Mr. Bush wanted to promote his education plans on the campaign trail in
1994, Wesley was a natural stop. "This man knows how to educate children,"
Mr. Bush said of Dr. Lott, whom he called an "education hero" and touted as
a strong candidate to be state education commissioner.

In 1995, then-Superintendent Rod Paige gave Dr. Lott the promotion he had
wanted. The district created the Acres Home Coalition: Wesley, neighboring
elementary schools Osborne and Highland Heights, and the middle school all
three feed in to, M.C. Williams. Dr. Lott was put in charge of all four
schools and given unprecedented control over the school's instruction and
personnel. Test scores increased, but rumors of cheating continued.


Dr. Lott resigned the post in 2002, citing family health reasons. Several
attempts to contact Dr. Lott on Thursday by telephone were unsuccessful.

This year, The News began a statewide analysis of test scores at Texas'
7,700 public schools. The newspaper obtained raw scale-score testing data
for every school for 2003 and 2004 and has found unusual gaps in nearly 400
schools: schools where students scored extraordinarily well in one grade but
very poorly in the next, or where students were near the state's bottom in
reading but had the best math scores in Texas.

As a result of previous stories based on The News' analysis, cheating
investigations have been launched in the Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Amarillo
and Wilmer-Hutchins school districts, and a criminal inquiry has begun in

In his statement, Dr. Saavedra said the district is reviewing test scores at
all Houston schools after questions were raised by a Dec. 19 News story.

"For the sake of Houston's children and the thousands of dedicated,
professional educators who serve them every day, the integrity of the
Houston Independent School District must remain absolutely beyond question,"
Dr. Saavedra wrote.

The News' analysis supports the statements of some teachers at M.C. Williams
that students' skills didn't match their reputation.

"When we got them, the kids just didn't perform," said a former long-time
teacher at M.C. Williams, who asked not to be named. About 70 percent of the
students in his classes at M.C. Williams arrived performing below grade
level, he said, despite their excellent test scores in elementary school.

He said students told him teachers in the elementary schools helped them on
standardized tests. "I was giving them a [TAAS] test and they asked me,
'Aren't you going to help us?' " he said.

Ms. Garner started teaching at Wesley in fall 2001. She immediately noticed
her fifth-graders were not the stars their test scores might have led her to
expect. "There were kids who couldn't even write their name," she said.
"Some were just illiterate."

She was pregnant at the school year's start, and she went on maternity leave
in October. While she was gone, her students took a sample TAAS test – a
common practice in districts focused on improving test scores.

When Ms. Garner returned to her class in February, she was shocked to see
that all her students has passed the practice TAAS with flying colors – many
with perfect or near-perfect scores.

"I asked them all: How did you make this score?" she said. "They all said,
'The teacher gave me the answers.' Each and every one of them."

A few days later, it was time for the school to give another sample TAAS.
Ms. Garner gave the test without helping her students; when the results came
back, many of her students had failed. She was called into the principal's
office and, she said, told she did not know "how to administer a test the
Wesley way.' "

She said other teachers told her that at Wesley, children answer each test
question together and aren't allowed to move on to the second question until
everyone was finished with the first. The teacher walks around the classroom
while students work. If a student answers it correctly, the teacher keeps on
walking. But if a student writes down an incorrect answer, the teacher
stands behind the student until he changes it to the correct answer.

'No clue'

Ms. Garner said her students were surprised when it was time for the real
TAAS test that spring. "They all just sat there like they had no clue what
to do. They said 'We had no idea we were going to have to take the test
ourselves.' "

The former Wesley principal who asked not to be named said he heard the
method was used by teachers, although he said he never witnessed it. He did,
however, walk in on a classroom that was administering the writing TAAS
test, where students write an essay. He said he saw a teacher reading over a
student's essay and saying, "You need to write some more."

He said that when he returned to his office, a colleague told him: "Whatever
you saw, you had better forget it. You'll just make it bad for yourself."

Statistically, The News' analysis found unusual patterns at all three Acres
Homes elementary schools:

•At Highland Heights, the 2004 fifth-grade scores in both math and reading
are suspect. In 2003, the school's fourth-graders had mediocre scores,
finishing at the state's 26th percentile in math and 39th percentile in

But a year later, those same students scored at elite levels in fifth grade.
Highland Heights finished in the top two percent of the entire state in both
reading and math.

•At Wesley, its scores on the old TAAS test ú given until 2002 ú were
consistently strong. Still, the school did not rank among the state's top
handful of performers. Those schools were nearly always magnet schools for
high academic achievers or schools in the state's wealthiest suburbs.

But in 2003, the first year of the TAKS test, Wesley rocketed to the top of
the state in reading. It finished No. 1 in third grade out of 3,155 schools.
The rest of the top 10 was filled with schools from some of the state's
richest suburbs: Highland Park, Coppell, Lewisville, Plano and Round Rock.

Wesley's fourth-graders finished fourth out of 3,160 schools, and its
fifth-graders finished seventh out of 2,955 schools. All three groups of
kids saw major drops in scores the next year.

•At Osborne Elementary, scores jumped sharply between 2003 and 2004 in all
grades. In 2003, the school's third-graders finished in the bottom 15
percent of the state in reading. The next year, third-graders were in the
top five percent of the state, ahead of wealthy suburban schools in Plano,
Rockwall, and McKinney. The school made similarly unlikely jumps in other

Julie Jaramillo, a teacher at Osborne until 2003, said she had little doubt
other teachers were cheating. She taught fifth grade, but said the vast
majority of her students were years behind ú even though they'd had test
success in earlier years. Some couldn't spell their own name or do simple
multiplication, she said.

Until its test-score jump in 2004, Osborne had been the weakest performer of
the neighborhood's elementaries. "One of our teachers said, 'We can't
compete with cheating,' " said Ms. Jaramillo, who is Ms. Garner's sister. "
'We can't expect 10-year-olds to compete with the grownups who are taking
the tests for them.' "

After the 2002-03 school year, more than a dozen experienced Osborne
teachers were transferred or asked to leave the school, Ms. Jaramillo said.
With a less experienced staff, Osborne's scores suddenly took off. This
spring, 97 percent of the school's students passed the reading test, up from
66 percent meeting the same standard the previous year. The passing rate in
math was 94 percent, up from 62 percent.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Smoke and Miracles: Who Really Benefits in the Accountability System?

Note: I don't have a date for this.-Angela

Who Really Benefits in the Accountability System?

by Emily Pyle

Since her appointment in January, Shirley Neeley, Governor Rick Perry‚s new education commissioner, has made dozens of public appearances. Her main task is to stump for proposals of Perry‚s that could come up if and when the governor calls a school finance special session later this spring. Since Perry is thinking big-his proposals include vouchers (or some other kind of “school choice “ program) as well as relaxed certification standards for teachers and pay incentives based largely on standardized test scores-Neeley will need all her considerable charm to sell his initiatives to a skeptical education community. So far, she‚s taken the task on with the pep of a cheerleader. And the governor, in return, has been a cheerleader for Neeley.

In particular, Perry has dwelt on Neeley‚s achievements as superintendent of Galena Park ISD. In nine years, in a district that is mostly minority and poor, Neeley almost doubled her students‚ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) exam that was the center of the state‚s accountability system. (The TAAS was replaced by the more difficult Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exam last spring.) As told by the governor‚s press office, Neeley‚s story is a fable for the accountability age. And indeed it is, but the deeper you look into the numbers behind it, the more troubling this fable‚s moral becomes.

Neeley is more than just a missionary for Texas‚ accountability system. She has been one of its biggest beneficiaries and an emblem of the state‚s educational trends. While the test has always meant high stakes for kids, who are promoted or held back based on their scores, those risks may soon get much higher for everyone in the education community. In the possible school finance special session to come, the state is poised to make test scores the basis for everything from teacher salaries to a district‚s share of state funding.

Critics of high-stakes testing allege that intense focus on a single test drains time and money away from the actual business of teaching and learning. In the end, it cheats even the high-scoring kids out of a real education. And in our new commissioner‚s old district, we see that principle at work. While scores statewide have climbed every year since the testing system first was instituted in 1992, in Galena Park, as in the state as a whole, other indicators of student achievement have not kept pace.

Neeley herself went to school in the Galena Park district along the Houston ship channel. Since grade school, she had felt called to teach, delivering her first lessons in her mother‚s backyard, to a class of dolls. After college at Texas A&M University, she returned to serve in the district as teacher, assistant principal, principal, and central administrator. She was named superintendent in 1995, at a time when the demographics of the area were changing fast, forcing the district to absorb an influx of students from poor and minority families, many of whom barely spoke English.

Just weeks after Neeley accepted the superintendent position, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the year‚s accountability ratings. Based on its TAAS scores, Galena Park ISD was rated “acceptable “˜the C- of the state‚s accountability system. Galena Park High School, Neeley‚s own alma mater, was rated “low-performing “ for its rock-bottom test scores and abysmal dropout rate˜nearly one student in ten left the school without graduating. Neeley was mortified. She solemnly promised her district board of trustees that the district would never have another low-performing school. If it did, they should fire her.

Then she set about bringing the TAAS scores up. First Neeley hired a team of consultants from Ohio State University to audit the district and determine its weak points. After a yearlong study the consultants issued their findings, ripping apart everything from the lecture style of the district‚s teachers to the lack of grievance counselors available to address employee complaints. But most of all, they emphasized the district‚s lack of “alignment “˜that is, the extent to which classroom teaching lined up with the content and format of the TAAS test. “They told us we weren‚t teaching the same stuff we were testing, “ Neeley says today.

So the district, under Neeley‚s leadership, set out to do what TAAS critics identify as the ultimate sin of standardized testing˜they began teaching to the test. At Neeley‚s prompting, teachers devoted the first 10 minutes of every class, in every grade, for every subject˜including band, art, and PE˜to TAAS exercises. Special test prep classes replaced extracurricular sessions for students who failed the TAAS on their first attempt. Even the birthday cards Neeley sent to every teacher and principal in the district read “Think Exemplary. “ Neeley also issued an ultimatum: Principals had three years to win their schools an accountability rating of at least “recognized “˜awarded when 80 percent of students in all racial and economic groups passed all parts of the TAAS. Principals who didn‚t meet the deadline were demoted or fired.

It worked. Over the nine years of Neeley‚s tenure, in
a fast-growing district that added more poor and minority students every year, the percentage of students passing the TAAS almost doubled for students in all ethnic and economic groups. Last spring, 95 percent of Galena Park‚s high school seniors passed the exit-level TAAS exam, and the achievement gaps between ethnic groups were negligible. Today, Galena Park is the largest district in the state to receive a TEA rating of “exemplary. “

“I am asking Dr. Neeley to do on the state level what she has done in Galena Park, which is to create a culture of educational excellence, and a focus on educational efficiency, so more students graduate from high school prepared for college and success in life, “ Perry said in a press release announcing Neeley‚s appointment to the commissionership.

The gains Neeley‚s students made on the TAAS are real. It‚s doubtful, however, that higher TAAS scores alone prepare kids as well as our governor seems to believe. Throughout Neeley‚s term as superintendent, the district‚s scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and ACT˜the tests by which college admission boards decide whether a student is “prepared for college and success in life “˜slumped downward.

While the TAAS and TAKS measure how much of the tested material each student knows, the SAT compares every student‚s performance against his or her peers. Compared to their peers across the nation and within the state, Galena Park‚s high school students have lost ground. In 1996, the year after Neeley became superintendent and the last time the SAT was recalibrated, the average SAT score in the district was 1016˜beating out the regional average of 1006, and the state average of 993. Scores dropped across the whole state in the intervening years, but Galena Park‚s scores fell more than most. By 2002, the district‚s average SAT score had dropped to 885, while the regional average was at 1000 and the state average at 986.

Neeley attributes the low scores on the SAT and ACT to the larger number of Galena Park students who take the test these days. However, the same percentage of students took the test in 1996 as in 2002. While the percentage of students taking the test did rise and fall during the nineties, scores on the exams dropped almost continuously. One reason Galena Park‚s scores remain below state and regional averages may be because the district has more minority students˜who typically score lower on the two exams˜and fewer white students, who typically score higher. While this could help explain Galena Park‚s low scores, it begs the question of why˜if TAAS and TAKS scores today show so little disparity between ethnic groups˜the district‚s minority students are still less prepared for these critical college entrance exams than their white peers.

Galena Park‚s SAT scores reveal a troubling achievement gap between racial groups that doesn‚t show up immediately in the district‚s TAAS and TAKS scores. In 1996, Hispanic students had an average SAT score of 960; their average score has fallen almost continuously since. In 2002, the average score was 841. The average score of Galena Park‚s black students drifted down from 950 in 1996 to 854 in 2002. The district‚s white students lost the least ground, going from an average score of 1094 in 1996 to 1008 in 2002. And while scores have been in a slide for the whole state, Galena Park student scores are dropping faster than most. In 1996, all the district‚s student groups outscored their peers statewide by 50 points or more. In 2002, only Galena Park‚s black students scored higher˜by 15 points˜than their peers state-wide. (In 1996, they outscored their state peers by almost 100 points.)

Racial disparities also persist within the very TAAS and TAKS scores, if you look at the state‚s numbers closely. The “Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP) equivalency “ score on the TAAS exit exam is used to estimate a student‚s chances of performing well on the TASP˜the exam required for admission to any Texas public university. By this measure, a higher percentage of Galena Park students˜as a whole and across every ethnic group˜were likely to pass the TASP in 2002 than in 1995. Yet the district‚s TASP equivalency scores lagged behind state and regional averages. And Hispanic students, by their TAAS exit exam scores, were about 40 percent less likely than their white peers to score well on the TASP. Black students were about 30 percent less likely to score well.

On a good note for Galena Park, the gaps between ethnic groups are lower than the gaps for the state as a whole. Indeed, the lesson to be learned from examining Galena Park‚s scores is not that the district is worse than most districts in the state˜it is probably better than many. The lesson here is about the essential emptiness of the accountability system‚s promise.

High test scores may mean something for principals, like those in Neeley‚s district, who must produce them to keep their jobs. They may soon mean something to teachers if the state adopts a “performance “ based incentive program like the one the governor, with Neeley‚s endorsement, proposes. But high scores on the TAKS are all but meaningless for the students who earn them, however hard they may have worked, however many of their band practices and gym classes may have been spent on test prep exercises. High accountability scores in a district do not automatically translate to equivalent gains on college entrance exams. High scores on the TAKS don‚t guarantee college admission. Without that guarantee, it‚s not obvious how an ability to sit still and fill in a bubble sheet prepares one for “success in life “ (unless they are being trained to be drones in a service economy).

Neeley is a true believer in accountability. To her mind, the testing system provides a constant monitor of students‚ progress, keeping them on track from kindergarten to graduation. As superintendent, she threw herself whole-heartedly behind the high-stakes testing system, bringing an all-consuming focus to the only measure of “performance “ that the accountability system counts. And she did improve it, unequivocally. The only shame is that the state didn‚t offer her a challenge with more substance, one that might have meant more for the children whose education was her charge. If Neeley brings her single-minded focus on testing to her new office, we may one day see every child in the state pass the TAKS exam. The question is, so what?

Emily Pyle is a writer based in Austin.

Start at Newton's Apple, by John Young

July 13, 2004

by John Young, Opinion page editor

I'm now about to regret, big-time, something I wrote for many years about
education in our state. I wrote, many times, that science was getting the shaft.

I'm regretting it not because it wasn't true. It was. It still is. I'm
regretting it because the state is poised to do something about it, and it's wrong. The State Board of Education this week will vote on requiring high schoolers to
have four credits of science to complete the recommended degree plan. If so, Texas would be one of only four states with such a stiff requirement. Just this year the state implemented a three-science-credit requirement for incoming freshmen.
Now the board talks about bumping that up one more.

The person who has no children in high school might say, "Good. More
science." The parent of a high schooler will say, "Just how many hours do you think there are in a day?"

The answer: Not enough, meaning kiss another elective goodbye.

Yes, there just aren't enough hours to go around in high school. That's
why more and more students, at their own expense, go to summer school or the local community college to get a credit that will free them to do the electives they love, like music, art and drama.

While science teachers apparently are applauding this proposal, other
faculty groups like the Texas Music Educators Association are denouncing it. "A step in eliminating electives" says its president.

Superintendents see it as a $200 million unfunded mandate. Or, did you
think Rick Perry and his "no new taxes" acolytes would help?

----When answer is the problem----

Why would I have complained about science getting the shaft before and not
be happy with this idea? Simple. In grade school I saw my children get cheated
of science instruction during the reading-writing-math drumbeat around TAKS'
successor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills 52; TAAS.

Elementary teachers complained that they didn't have time to teach science
because they had to belabor "TAAS objectives."

Under TAKS, science is more broadly tested, no doubt a response to
complaints like mine. Still, with testing taking up increasing amounts of time in Texas schools, important teaching time goes by the wayside. If state policy makers really cared about science education they'd step inside elementary teachers' shoes and find out how top-down mandates have sapped the classroom of vitality and time to teach important concepts. To improve science education, emphasize it in grade school.

Require another science credit in high school? How late in the game are we
getting? By the time a student is a senior in high school he or she should be
drawing a bead on an interest or an emphasis, and not under the thumb of suits in Austin.

What is suspect about this proposal, or what it may imply about our
"accountability system," is that policy makers say it's needed because students aren't performing sufficiently on the TAKS science portion. So, you're going to require another science credit? But that would be for the senior year 52; after most students have passed the TAKS exit test.

Just what is TAKS testing, anyway? Stuff our children are taught or stuff
we didn't get around to teaching them?

Meanwhile, the music teachers make an important point: Electives are a key
ingredient in keeping students in school. Additionally, that fourth science
credit just might be the last straw for a student who says, "I don't have to be here, and I won't."

Texas has the nation's highest dropout rate. Everyone has a theory about
that. My theory is that the state has bled the education process of much of its
vitality through test emphasis and standardization. Students on the margins look at the way they've become objectified in the process and say, "the heck with this."

People who see electives like fine arts as pointless frills are, to use an
umpiring phrase, so away from the play as to be out of the ballpark.

To improve science education, start in kindergarten. Don't try to shoehorn
more science into an already packed 12th grade because you failed to deliver in -11.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail:

Statement of Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust, on the HCRP and Urban Institute Report on HS Graduation Rates & NCLB

February 25, 2004 202-293-1217 ext 328 OR
Kim Holmes ext 292

Statement of Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust, on the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Urban Institute Report on High School Graduation Rates and NCLB

(Washington, D.C.) - "There's no question that high school graduation rates across the country are abysmal, and that the shocking racial disparities in graduation rates are unconscionable. That's why the Education Trust released last December a report documenting the fact that many states shamelessly inflate their high school graduation rates and minimize their graduation gaps. And why, at that time, we called on the U.S. Department of Education to take a much stronger role in the implementation of the high school graduation rate accountability provisions in No Child Left Behind.

"Last year, the Department sent clear signals that graduation data was not an issue about which it cared -- including sending out data-reporting directions that were at odds with the law and the Department's own regulations -- and states cynically took advantage of the Department's inattention by publishing data that obfuscates and obscures the problem rather than addresses it. The Department has belatedly appointed an advisory commission to look at the issue, and we are hopeful that more accurate data will be reported in the future. Meaningful accountability in public education has to measure both student learning and whether students are still in school to learn.

"But any suggestion that high school dropouts are somehow caused by accountability is absolutely incorrect. Indeed, to suggest that accountability forces educators to harm children actually rewards irresponsibility and bad behavior. Worse still, it lets educators and the education system off the hook.

"Make no mistake, this is about adult choices -- professional and ethical choices. When professionals in other fields act in bad faith, no one calls for less accountability. In fact, they often call for more.

"Would anyone claim that corporate scandals are the result of too much accountability? Would anyone -- other than perhaps his defense attorneys - claim that former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling was forced into cheating and that the SEC is at fault for requiring the disclosure of information and enforcing securities laws? Would anyone claim that the proper response to such unethical and unprofessional behavior would be to stop holding corporations accountable?

"Absolutely not.

"Choosing to break the rules and take actions that harm children is just that: a choice. When we explain away such choices with euphemisms like "forced" or "unintended consequence," we excuse educators from their professional and ethical obligations. We send a message to our Nation's young people that irresponsibility will be met with impunity. That is simply unacceptable."

To see the Education Trust's December report on high school graduation rates:

'No Child' Law Leaves Schools' Old Ways Behind

By Michael Dobbs

Washington Post

Thursday, April 22, 2004; Page A01

WARREN TOWNSHIP, Ind. -- Raymond Park Middle School lost its two arts teachers last year. Home economics was eliminated, along with most foreign-language classes and some physical education classes. The overwhelming priority these days is getting students to grade level in reading and math.

Instead of an art department, Raymond Park now has a computer wizard who, with a few clicks of a mouse, can produce charts of students lagging behind state and federal performance targets. An education consultant from Texas, preaching a business-driven model known as total quality management, has reorganized the curriculum into three-week chunks, each of which leads up to a test.

The changes at Raymond Park, a racially mixed school in a working-class suburb of Indianapolis, are symptomatic of an educational revolution symbolized and accelerated by President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind initiative. An ever-increasing nationwide preoccupation with results and accountability is reaching down into the classroom, changing the way students are taught and causing teachers and administrators to rethink the practices of a lifetime.

"It hurts me to give up art, but it hurts me even more to have kids who can't read," said Raymond Park's principal, Kathy Deck. "I have to decide where I will get the biggest bang for my buck."

Like many principals, Deck has embraced the goals of No Child Left Behind, which center on a commitment to make every student in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014. She says the law has helped focus attention on the needs of frequently ignored groups of youngsters, including minorities and special-education students. She is also in favor of schools being held accountable for their performance.

But the principal's enthusiasm for the Bush education reforms is tempered by the knowledge that her school, like many others, will probably never be able to meet the performance targets. Several characteristics of the student body have historically correlated with low test scores: Nearly one out of four Raymond Park students is in special education; 35 percent are African American; 54 percent are eligible for subsidized lunches, a common benchmark of poverty. Under No Child Left Behind, every subgroup is required to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" until it reaches 100 percent proficiency.

Test scores at Raymond Park have improved somewhat over the past two years, but the school has still fallen well short of the federal targets. The results have been mixed, with a jump in performance in the sixth grade but stagnation in the eighth grade, particularly in reading.

"We will always fail," said Melissa Gogel, a sixth-grade special-ed teacher, whose students include several nonreaders and several reading on a third- or fourth-grade level. "The government is trying to put everybody in one melting pot and say that everybody has to pass the same test." She says she is teaching her students demonstrative pronouns when she should be teaching them life skills.

In theory, Gogel's students spend four and sometimes five hours a day on reading and math. In practice, it is hard to retain their attention for more than a few minutes. On a recent day, one student was playing video games on a computer at the back of the classroom while Gogel was threatening to send another to the principal for disruptive behavior.

According to a recent study by the Center for Basic Education, a Washington-based think tank, many U.S. schools are reporting a narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the new emphasis on reading and math. The impact of No Child Left Behind has been particularly great in schools with large minority populations which tend to have lower test scores and are under the most pressure to improve.

Roughly eight in 10 principals of such schools surveyed by the center reported an increase in instructional time for math and reading over the past three years. A third of these principals reported a loss of instructional time for the arts, and 42 percent anticipated further cuts in arts education.

Budget cuts in many states have compounded the problem, forcing principals and superintendents to make tough decisions on how to focus their resources. Faced with a financial shortfall, other Indiana districts have cut extracurricular activities, from school newspapers to the swim team to cheerleading coaches.

"It's the lopsidedness that I worry about," said Anne Young, principal of Clark Elementary School in Franklin, a rural community near Indianapolis. "The pressure on teachers [to improve test results] is enormous. Some young teachers only know the world of data. I want teachers to see faces, not numbers."

In a recent telephone interview, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige insisted that there was nothing in the No Child Left Behind law that obliges schools to do away with subjects such as art or music. At the same time, he defended the new emphasis on reading and math as a prerequisite to educational success, particularly for low-achieving students.

"A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics," Paige said.

At Raymond Park, as in other Indiana schools, the accountability revolution did not happen overnight. It gathered pace during the 1990s as the nation's educational pendulum swung back to basics and away from liberal notions of the "whole child." Many of the business models now in vogue in American education were developed in southern states such as North Carolina and Texas during the Clinton era as a bipartisan response to a perceived decline in academic standards.

What distinguishes No Child Left Behind from the reforms of the Clinton period, say many educators, is the enforcement mechanism. Schools that fail to make the grade are obliged to implement costly remedial measures including special tutoring for at-risk students and busing kids to better-performing schools. If a school repeatedly fails to meet federal benchmarks, it can be dissolved or taken over by the state.

In Warren Township, a bedroom suburb of Indianapolis, the passage of No Child Left Behind coincided with the arrival of a new superintendent, Peggy Hinckley, in May 2001. Standardized test scores at Raymond Park and other Warren Township schools had fallen for two straight years, and Hinckley was determined to improve them.

"We are living in a results-oriented society," Hinckley said. "For a long time, education had been allowed to exist in a cocoon, without much pressure from outside. But it can't be exempt any longer. Everybody is looking for results, and we will do whatever we can to achieve them."

With the support of her school board, Hinckley adopted an approach modeled on the Texas town of Brazosport on the Gulf of Mexico, which reported stellar test results in the 1990s. She hired the former Brazosport curriculum director, Pat Davenport, as a consultant. Raymond Park was one of the first schools in the township to adopt the Brazosport method.

An educational version of industrial quality control, the Brazosport method monitors the progress of individual students toward clearly defined goals. Students who fail to answer at least two of four questions correctly on a mini-test must attend a remedial class, skipping physical education or health.

Middle Schools in Warren Township lost their art departments at the beginning of the school year, in part as a cost-saving measure and in part because of the overriding emphasis on math and reading. According to Ann Rice, who taught art at Raymond Park for 10 years, the district "softened the blow" on its staff by finding alternative positions for most of the newly redundant teachers, including herself.

Even so, she says, the decision came as a shock. "We felt we enabled more kids to be successful," she said, explaining that the arts program was a way of recognizing the talents of academically challenged students.

Davenport, who has trained hundreds of schools across the country in the Brazosport method, said she had never recommended cuts in arts or athletics programs. At the same time, she conceded, principals face a difficult choice in deciding how to apportion limited resources. "They don't test you on art," she said. "It's an enrichment activity."

Some teachers, in Indianapolis and in other cities across the country, welcome the changes that have come in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Some are waiting them out, betting that they will prove to be a passing educational fad. And some are in open rebellion.

"I am a much smarter teacher nowadays," said Kelly Patterson, who teaches eighth-grade math at Raymond Park. The Brazosport method, she says, has forced teachers to work together more collaboratively. "We are told what we need to do in a three-week period, and I plan my days accordingly."

Maurine Marchani, who has been teaching science for 36 years, is not so thrilled. She no longer has time for some of her most creative, memorable activities, such as having her students devise ways of packaging a raw egg so that it will survive being dropped from the ladder of a firetruck.

"For legislators to decide that we have to perform at a certain level or be sanctioned is ludicrous," she said. "If I were a neurosurgeon, they wouldn't dream of telling me what procedures I have to carry out."

Parents and school board members have had a mixed reaction to the changes ushered in by No Child Left Behind. "We felt the basics were more important," said the Warren Township school board president, Jay Wise, explaining why he went along with the focus on math and reading at the expense of narrowing the curriculum.

But Cindy Fulper, treasurer of the Raymond Park Parent Teacher Association, said: "There's too much emphasis on testing now. The schools are so busy meeting their goals that they aren't able to concentrate on what is best for their kids." She cites the example of her daughter Rachael, an eighth-grader, who "felt kind of cheated" when she learned that she would not be able to take German because the subject had been eliminated.

The difficulty of keeping pace with the goals of No Child Left Behind has led many administrators and principals to conclude that the law is in need of serious revision. Hinckley, the school superintendent, favors switching to a different kind of accountability system under which schools would be judged by their progress from year to year, rather than their ability to hit a set of rigid federal benchmarks.

"The federal Department of Education is obsessed with regulations," she said, leafing through the latest batch of directives from Washington. "They are trying to micromanage us -- and it is driving us crazy."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Meritocracy in America: Ever Higher: Society, Ever Harder to Ascend

Meritocracy in America

Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend
Dec 29th 2004 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

Whatever happened to the belief that any American could get to the top?
THE United States likes to think of itself as the very embodiment of meritocracy: a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections. The original colonies were settled by refugees from a Europe in which the restrictions on social mobility were woven into the fabric of the state, and the American revolution was partly a revolt against feudalism. From the outset, Americans believed that equality of opportunity gave them an edge over the Old World, freeing them from debilitating snobberies and at the same time enabling everyone to benefit from the abilities of the entire population. They still do.
To be sure, America has often betrayed its fine ideals. The Founding Fathers did not admit women or blacks to their meritocratic republic. The country's elites have repeatedly flirted with the aristocratic principle, whether among the brahmins of Boston or, more flagrantly, the rural ruling class in the South. Yet America has repeatedly succeeded in living up to its best self, and today most Americans believe that their country still does a reasonable job of providing opportunities for everybody, including blacks and women. In Europe, majorities of people in every country except Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia believe that forces beyond their personal control determine their success. In America only 32% take such a fatalistic view.

But are they right? A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.
The past couple of decades have seen a huge increase in inequality in America. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, argues that between 1979 and 2000 the real income of households in the lowest fifth (the bottom 20% of earners) grew by 6.4%, while that of households in the top fifth grew by 70%. The family income of the top 1% grew by 184%—and that of the top 0.1% or 0.01% grew even faster. Back in 1979 the average income of the top 1% was 133 times that of the bottom 20%; by 2000 the income of the top 1% had risen to 189 times that of the bottom fifth.
Thirty years ago the average real annual compensation of the top 100 chief executives was $1.3m: 39 times the pay of the average worker. Today it is $37.5m: over 1,000 times the pay of the average worker. In 2001 the top 1% of households earned 20% of all income and held 33.4% of all net worth. Not since pre-Depression days has the top 1% taken such a big whack.

More dynastic than dynamic
Most Americans see nothing wrong with inequality of income so long as it comes with plenty of social mobility: it is simply the price paid for a dynamic economy. But the new rise in inequality does not seem to have come with a commensurate rise in mobility. There may even have been a fall.
The most vivid evidence of social sclerosis comes from politics. A country where every child is supposed to be able to dream of becoming president is beginning to produce a self-perpetuating political elite. George Bush is the son of a president, the grandson of a senator, and the sprig of America's business aristocracy. John Kerry, thanks to a rich wife, is the richest man in a Senate full of plutocrats. He is also a Boston brahmin, educated at St Paul's, a posh private school, and Yale—where, like the Bushes, he belonged to the ultra-select Skull and Bones society.
Mr Kerry's predecessor as the Democrats' presidential nominee, Al Gore, was the son of a senator. Mr Gore, too, was educated at a posh private school, St Albans, and then at Harvard. And Mr Kerry's main challenger from the left of his party? Howard Brush Dean was the product of the same blue-blooded world of private schools and unchanging middle names as Mr Bush (one of Mr Bush's grandmothers was even a bridesmaid to one of Mr Dean's). Mr Dean grew up in the Hamptons and on New York's Park Avenue.
The most remarkable feature of the continuing power of America's elite—and its growing grip on the political system—is how little comment it arouses. Britain would be in high dudgeon if its party leaders all came from Eton and Harrow. Perhaps one reason why the rise of caste politics raises so little comment is that something similar is happening throughout American society. Everywhere you look in modern America—in the Hollywood Hills or the canyons of Wall Street, in the Nashville recording studios or the clapboard houses of Cambridge, Massachusetts—you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves. America is increasingly looking like imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening and a gap widening between the people who make the decisions and shape the culture and the vast majority of ordinary working stiffs.

It's sticky out there
All this may sound a bit impressionistic. But more and more evidence from social scientists suggests that American society is much “stickier” than most Americans assume. Some researchers claim that social mobility is actually declining. A classic social survey in 1978 found that 23% of adult men who had been born in the bottom fifth of the population (as ranked by social and economic status) had made it into the top fifth. Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues recently decided to update the study. They compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979. The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10% of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter.

The Economic Policy Institute also argues that social mobility has declined since the 1970s. In the 1990s 36% of those who started in the second-poorest 20% stayed put, compared with 28% in the 1970s and 32% in the 1980s. In the 1970s 12% of the population moved from the bottom fifth to either the fourth or the top fifth. In the 1980s and 1990s the figures shrank to below 11% for both decades. The figure for those who stayed in the top fifth increased slightly but steadily over the three decades, reinforcing the sense of diminished social mobility.

Liz, meet the royals

Not all social scientists accept the conclusion that mobility is declining. Gary Solon, of the University of Michigan, argues that there is no evidence of any change in social-mobility rates, down or up. But, at the least, most people agree that the dramatic increase in income inequality over the past two decades has not been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in social mobility.

Take the study carried out by Thomas Hertz, an economist at American University in Washington, DC, who studied a representative sample of 6,273 American families (both black and white) over 32 years or two generations. He found that 42% of those born into the poorest fifth ended up where they started—at the bottom. Another 24% moved up slightly to the next-to-bottom group. Only 6% made it to the top fifth. Upward mobility was particularly low for black families. On the other hand, 37% of those born into the top fifth remained there, whereas barely 7% of those born into the top 20% ended up in the bottom fifth. A person born into the top fifth is over five times as likely to end up at the top as a person born into the bottom fifth.
Jonathan Fisher and David Johnson, two economists at the Bureau of Labour Statistics, looked at inequality and social mobility using measures of both income and consumption. They found that mobility “slightly decreased” in the 1990s. In 1984-90, 56% and 54% of households changed their rankings in terms of income and consumption respectively. In 1994-99, only 52% and 49% changed their rankings.

Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston analysed family incomes over three decades. They found that 40% of families remained stuck in the same income bracket in the 1990s, compared with 37% of families in the 1980s and 36% in the 1970s. Aaron Bernstein of Business Week points out that, even though the 1990s boom lifted pay rates for low-earners, it did not help them to get better jobs.

There is also growing evidence that America is less socially mobile than many other rich countries. Mr Solon finds that the correlation between the incomes of fathers and sons is higher in the United States than in Germany, Sweden, Finland or Canada. Such cross-national comparisons are rife with problems: different studies use different methods and different definitions of social status. But Americans are clearly mistaken if they believe they live in the world's most mobile society.

Back to the 1880s
This is not the first time that America has looked as if it was about to succumb to what might be termed the British temptation. America witnessed a similar widening of the income gap in the Gilded Age. It also witnessed the formation of a British-style ruling class. The robber barons of the late 19th century sent their children to private boarding schools and made sure that they married the daughters of the old elite, preferably from across the Atlantic. Politics fell into the hands of the members of a limited circle—so much so that the Senate was known as the millionaires' club.
Yet the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a concerted attempt to prevent America from degenerating into a class-based society. Progressive politicians improved state education. Philanthropists—many of them the robber barons reborn in new guise—tried to provide ladders to help the lads-o'-parts (Andrew Carnegie poured millions into free libraries). Such reforms were motivated partly out of a desire to do good works and partly out of a real fear of the implications of class-based society. Teddy Roosevelt advocated an inheritance tax because he thought that huge inherited fortunes would ruin the character of the republic. James Conant, the president of Harvard in 1933-53, advocated radical educational reform—particularly the transformation of his own university into a meritocracy—in order to prevent America from producing an aristocracy.

Pushy parents, driven brats
The evils that Roosevelt and Conant worried about are clearly beginning to reappear. But so far there are few signs of a reform movement. Why not?
The main reason may be a paradoxical one: because the meritocratic revolution of the first half of the 20th century has been at least half successful. Members of the American elite live in an intensely competitive universe. As children, they are ferried from piano lessons to ballet lessons to early-reading classes. As adolescents, they cram in as much after-school coaching as possible. As students, they compete to get into the best graduate schools. As young professionals, they burn the midnight oil for their employers. And, as parents, they agonise about getting their children into the best universities. It is hard for such people to imagine that America is anything but a meritocracy: their lives are a perpetual competition. Yet it is a competition among people very much like themselves—the offspring of a tiny slither of society—rather than among the full range of talents that the country has to offer.

The second reason is that America's engines of upward mobility are no longer working as effectively as they once were. The most obvious example lies in the education system. Upward mobility is increasingly determined by education. The income of people with just a high-school diploma was flat in 1975-99, whereas that of people with a bachelor's degree rose substantially, and that of people with advanced degrees rocketed.

Roosevelt's warnings go unheeded
The education system is increasingly stratified by social class, and poor children have a double disadvantage. They attend schools with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries (school finances are largely determined by local property taxes). And they have to deal with the legacy of what Michael Barone, a conservative commentator, has labelled “soft America”. Soft America is allergic to introducing accountability and measurement in education, particularly if it takes the form of merit pay for successful teachers or rewards for outstanding pupils. Dumbed-down schools are particularly harmful to poor children, who are unlikely to be able to compensate for them at home.

America's great universities are increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities. Poorer students are at a huge disadvantage, both when they try to get in and, if they are successful, in their ability to make the most of what is on offer. This disadvantage is most marked in the elite colleges that hold the keys to the best jobs. Three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic fourth, compared with just 3% who come from the poorest fourth (the median family income at Harvard, for example, is $150,000). This means that, at an elite university, you are 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor one.

One reason for this is government money. The main federal programme supporting poorer students is the Pell grant: 90% of such grants go to families with incomes below $41,000. But the federal government has been shifting resources from Pell grants to other forms of aid to higher education. Student loans are unrelated to family resources. Federal tax breaks for higher education benefit the rich. State subsidies for higher education benefit rich and poor alike. At the same time, colleges are increasingly using financial aid to attract talented students away from competitors rather than to help the poor.

Another reason may be “affirmative action”—programmes designed to help members of racial minorities. These are increasingly used by elite universities, in the belief that race is a reasonable proxy for social disadvantage, which it may not be. Flawed as it may be, however, this kind of affirmative action is much less pernicious than another practised by many universities: “legacy preferences”, a programme for the children of alumni—as if privileged children were not already doing well enough out of the education system.

In most Ivy League institutions, the eight supposedly most select universities of the north-east, “legacies” make up between 10% and 15% of every class. At Harvard they are over three times more likely to be admitted than others. The students in America's places of higher education are increasingly becoming an oligarchy tempered by racial preferences. This is sad in itself, but even sadder when you consider the extraordinary role that the same universities—particularly Conant's Harvard—played in promoting meritocracy in the first half of the 20th century.

All snakes, no ladders
America's great companies are also becoming less successful agents of upward mobility. The years from 1880 to 1960 were a period of great corporate behemoths. These produced a new class of Americans—professional managers. They built elaborate internal hierarchies, and also accepted their responsibilities to both their workers and their local communities. But since the 1970s the pressure of competition has forced these behemoths to become much leaner—to reduce their layers, contract out some activities, and shift from full-time to part-time employees. It has became harder for people to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchy by dint of hard work and self-improvement. And it has also become harder for managers to keep their jobs in a single company.

There are a few shafts of sun on the horizon. George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act tries to use a mixture of tests and punishments for lousy schools to improve the performance of minority children. Senator Edward Kennedy bangs the drum against legacy preferences. But the bad news outdoes the good. The Republicans, by getting rid of inheritance tax, seem hell-bent on ignoring Teddy Roosevelt's warnings about the dangers of a hereditary aristocracy. The Democrats are more interested in preferment for minorities than building ladders of opportunity for all.

In his classic “The Promise of American Life”, Herbert Croly noted that “a democracy, not less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognise political, economic, and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance.” So far Americans have been fairly tolerant of economic distinctions. But that tolerance may not last for ever, if the current trend towards “excessive endurance” is not reversed.

Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Too Lax on TAKS: Education Agency Must Weed Out Cheaters

Dallas Morning News

Today's lesson, children, is that your teacher can help you cheat on the
TAKS test, and other grownups will look the other way.

As long as none of your classmates tattles, there's virtually no chance that
anyone will get caught, because the Texas Education Agency ignores
statistical evidence of cheating no matter how outrageous the facts. Your
entire class can bomb on the TAKS one year and get perfect scores the next,
and nobody in authority will so much as raise an eyebrow.

Consequences: Your teachers and principal boost their careers while hiding
the fact that you're getting a crummy education. Oh, yes, and you
internalize the lesson that cheating is OK.

Dallas Morning News reporters Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker uncovered
dramatic statistical anomalies in the 2004 TAKS scores at more than 200
public schools across the state. Houston and Dallas each had more than 20
schools with suspect scores. The TEA is now investigating both districts,
but TEA officials said their general policy is to launch investigations only
if someone comes forward with firsthand knowledge of cheating.

Unless the guilty teacher suffers a sudden attack of remorse, that
"someone," by definition, would almost have to be a student. Those taking
the test should complain – they're ultimately the ones getting cheated. But
how many students are likely to voluntarily confess?

The TEA actually analyzes the number of erasures on each TAKS test but
doesn't investigate even when the number is exceptionally high. One of the
agency's excuses is that circumstantial evidence – such as lots of erasures
or wild swings in test scores from grade to grade or year to year – isn't
enough to make a case.

Exactly. That's why the TEA needs to follow up such evidence with
on-the-ground investigations. Students won't spontaneously confess, but some
of them will tell the truth if they are questioned. If the TEA's
investigative staff of just three people is too small (another excuse) then
it should hire more investigators.

Because at this point, the correct answer to the question "What four-letter
word describes the TEA's stance on cheating?" is "joke."
Online at: here

Monday, December 20, 2004

Newspaper Finds Evidence of Cheating by Texas Schools


Newspaper finds evidence of cheating by Texas schools

DALLAS, Texas (AP) -- Dozens of Texas schools appear to have cheated on the state's redesigned academic achievement test, casting doubt on whether the accountability system can reliably measure how schools are performing, a newspaper found.

An analysis uncovered strong evidence of organized, educator-led cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at schools in Houston and Dallas, along with suspicious scores in hundreds of other schools, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Texas education policies on student accountability became the model for the federal No Child Left Behind law enacted after President Bush's election in 2000.

The newspaper analyzed scores from 7,700 Texas schools, searching for ones with unusual gaps in performance between grades or subjects. It said research has shown that schools that are weak in one subject or grade are typically weak in others.

More than 200 schools had large, unexplained score gaps between grades or between the TAKS and other standardized tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test.

It found, for example, that the fourth-graders at Sanderson Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District scored extremely poorly on the math TAKS test this year, rating the school in the bottom 2 percent of the state.

However, the school's fifth-graders ended up with the highest scale scores on the math TAKS of any school in Texas, with more than 90 percent of the students getting perfect or near-perfect scores.

Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra said he has asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate the scores at Sanderson, which the U.S. Education Department named a Blue Ribbon School in 2003 because of rapid improvements in test results.

"At HISD, our credibility and integrity must remain absolutely beyond question," he said in a statement.

Similar results were found at Harrell Budd Elementary in Dallas. Third grade students finished in the bottom 4 percent in reading. But Budd's fourth-graders had the second-highest reading scores in the state, behind a Houston magnet school for gifted children.

Dallas district spokesman Donald Claxton said officials there plan a thorough investigation.

"If there's cheating going on, we want to stop it," he said.

Jim Impara, a former state assessment director in Florida and Oregon, said he believes such school rating systems are changing the culture of education.

"When you have a system where test scores have real impact on teachers' lives, you're more likely to see teachers willing to cheat," he said.
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Find this article at:

Friday, December 17, 2004

Thousands can leave low-rated schools

293,000 Texas students eligible to transfer to a higher-rated campus

10:49 PM CST on Friday, December 17, 2004

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – The number of low-rated public schools under Texas' education choice law soared this year, giving more than 293,000 students at the state's worst campuses the right to transfer to a better school.

The Texas Education Agency listed 420 schools statewide Friday, up from 126 a year ago. The Dallas Independent School District had the second-most, with 48 campuses – up from 20 last year. Houston led the state with 62 schools that failed to make the grade.

Even with the transfer option, though, few students are expected to take advantage of the Public Education Grant program, primarily because transportation is not provided and school districts are not required to accept students from neighboring districts.

TAKS Test 2004
Complete list: Transfer-eligible Texas schools

TAKS results: Statewide performance, Spring 2004

About TAKS

More Education

But Republican leaders in the Legislature may use that fact to argue that students need vouchers that can be used at private schools to truly be free of low-performing public schools. Voucher backers could use the list of 420 low-rated schools to choose sites for a test program.

State education officials attributed the large increase in failing schools to the tougher performance standards that were introduced this year. Those standards were based in large part on the state's redesigned achievement test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

"We expected to see an increase because schools are being held to higher standards under the accountability system, and we added test scores in science and social studies to the criteria," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

"Low student performance on the science test was one of the most common reasons that schools were rated academically unacceptable this year," she said.

A DISD spokesman said officials expected to have more campuses on this year's list.

"The numbers are what they are, and we're trying to do what we can," said Donald Claxton. "We'll do better next year."

Other school districts in the Dallas area that had campuses on the state list were Arlington, Birdville, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, DeSoto, Grand Prairie, Irving, Lake Worth, Lancaster, Lewisville, Richardson and Wilmer-Hutchins. The Fort Worth school district had 10 campuses on the list.

Making the list

To make the list, a school had to have more than 50 percent of its students fail the TAKS or its predecessor – the TAAS – in any two of the last three years or have been rated academically unacceptable this year or in 2002. Performance ratings were not issued in 2003.

Students from those schools can transfer to another public school in their own district or another district – if that district agrees to accept them. Those that do receive a financial incentive from the state – an extra 10 percent per pupil.

The names of eligible schools are being published now because most districts consider transfer requests several months before the start of the new school year, education officials said. Parents must be notified of the option by Feb. 1, with students allowed to attend a new school next fall.

Students at substandard schools also have the right to transfer to a better school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – but the number of eligible campuses is less than half that under the Texas Public Education Grant program. The federal law was based in part on Texas school reforms enacted under Gov. George W. Bush.

In September, 199 Texas schools were put on the federal list – including about three dozen regular and charter schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Passing rates on the TAKS were the main criteria in compiling that list, which was dominated by high schools.

Under the federal program, school districts must provide transportation to a transferring student, unlike the state program.

Since the Public Education Grant program began in the late 1990s, just under 2,000 students – including 127 last year – have used it to transfer to a new school.

Low participation

Critics of the program's current requirements contend that participation won't increase significantly until transportation is offered and school districts are required to accept students from low-rated campuses in neighboring districts.

Ms. Ratcliffe said another reason for the low participation is that many districts have made it easier for students to transfer within the district, regardless of the state requirements.

The state's charter school program also gives an alternative to parents unhappy with their regular neighborhood school. Texas has about 275 independent charter campuses across the state that educate nearly 70,000 students.

Supporters of school vouchers have long cited the low participation in the Public Education Grant program as one reason why Texas needs to expand school choice options to private schools.

They have urged the Legislature to allow students at failing schools to transfer to any public or private school using state vouchers to pay tuition but have had no success. Next year, though, voucher supporters may have their best chance, with social conservative activists and Republican leaders making vouchers a high priority.

School boards, PTAs and teacher groups have vigorously opposed vouchers, contending it would drain millions of dollars from public schools.

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs in Dallas contributed to this report.


Online at: here

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Stupid is as Stupid Does: So Goes School Finance

by Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.,
Texas Public Policy Foundation

December, 2004
Are the children of Texas stupid or are our schools inefficient? If your answer is “neither,” you’re wrong. You have to decide. Which is it? Stupid kids or inefficient schools?

Why must it be one or the other? First, the United States spends more on a per-pupil basis than virtually any nation on earth. Second, Texas spends a little below the national average unless cost-of-living is taken into account; then, Texas spends a bit above the national average. Third, every nation that outperforms the United States in international academic comparisons, and for which there is spending data, spends less than we do on a per-pupil basis.

Only two conclusions can be drawn, and it’s clear where the state’s administrators represented in the school lawsuit fall. Apparently, because they say they absolutely cannot adequately educate children even at the planetary-high funding level they already enjoy, our children must be awfully thick. It is all that they can do to keep the dull-witted varmints corralled for a few hours every day.

Travis County District Judge John Dietz is right there with them. His ruling implies that when the legislature delegates in law the responsibility of actually educating children it is an “unfunded mandate.” He makes it clear in his legal opinion on the school finance lawsuit that our funding levels are insufficient to educate the state’s children. They need lots of extra tutoring, summer programs, full-day kindergarten, much smaller classrooms, brand-new buildings, more books, and lots and lots of technology.

"More employees and
more money, but
our kids are
no better educated!"


Of course, common sense tells most of us that the problem is less with the kids than it is with the administrators and our monopoly school system. Other multi-lingual countries educate their children better than ours for less money. There is no reason to believe that Texas children have more difficulty learning than children in the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic or Hungary, all of whom outperform us in math and science.

But common sense apparently took a powder the day Judge Dietz ruled on school finance. Most of us know to be suspicious when someone demands more money in the name of some higher purpose, especially when there are financial benefits to be had. Instead, Judge Dietz swallowed every line the state’s superintendents spoon-fed him.

The fact is we could triple the amount of money going to our schools and it would not be enough. Oh wait! We’ve done that already! From 1970 to 2000, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in Texas’ public schools tripled. If anything, the hue and cry from administrators has only gotten louder. It’s like the spoiled child who knows that whining always gets him more goodies.

Apparently, planetary-high levels of funding are not good enough. It’s just not enough that the student-teacher ratio has fallen from 24 to less than 15 over the last 40 years, and that simultaneously teachers ceased to outnumber non-teachers. More employees and more money, but our kids are no better educated.

Here’s a little common sense: More money alone will not provide more education. Existing money needs to be spent where it counts, in the classroom, and parents need more choices. Maybe what the inadequacies of the school system identified in Judge Dietz’s opinion really tell us is just how badly our money is being spent.
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D., is the chief economist of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research institution.