Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Do the math: Texas needs quality teachers

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Poor performance on the science and math skills exams is the primary reason that Texas schools slid in the statewide ratings announced this week.

Before blaming students, their families or even the schools, the governor and Legislature should look hard at the quality of science and math teachers. If state leaders are serious about improving public schools, they must find the will — and the money — to attract more qualified science and math teachers.

This year, fewer schools got As and Bs on the state report card, while considerably more got Fs. Schools that failed — those ranked "academically unacceptable" — nearly quadrupled, from 95 in 2004 to 364 in 2005.

The annual state report card that ranks schools and districts is based largely on performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the exam that students in grades 3 through 11 take each year. But the report card also incorporates drop-out rates and scores of alternative exams for special education students.

Some high-performing schools, such as Austin's Anderson High School, got a failing grade because too few students who took the special education exam passed. At least 50 percent of a school's special education population had to pass the exam to be rated "academically acceptable," the equivalent of a C.

That's the way the state system works. It's not enough for a majority of all students to pass to get a C. The state stipulates that a certain percentage of students in each separate group also must pass to be rated acceptable. Breaking performance down by student groups — special education, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and African American — helps schools identify students who are doing well and those who aren't.

The bar was much lower for regular students taking the math and science TAKS. On the TAKS science exam, just 25 percent of each student group was required to pass to get an acceptable rating or C grade; on the math TAKS, 35 percent had to pass. In other words, 75 percent of each student group could have flunked science and 65 percent could have flunked math and the school still would have been rated acceptable.

With the bar so low, why did so many students fail?

For the answer, we turned to University of Texas researcher Ed Fuller, whose research has linked students' academic success to the quality of teachers.

It's hardly a coincidence that math and science performance is lacking given the state's shortage of qualified math and science teachers, he says. This is how that plays out in the classroom: Seventy-nine percent of those teaching high school Algebra 1 courses have the state-stipulated requirements for teaching that course. Algebra is a key component on the high school math test. The situation is similar in science, Fuller says.

Thanks to the Texas Legislature, educational standards — including those for science and math — are rising.

But the Legislature has failed miserably in providing schools the money they need to meet those standards and attract enough qualified math and science teachers for every classroom.

This year, lawmakers blew several opportunities to address lagging academic performance. They were fixated on cutting property taxes, not adequately financing schools.

Cutting taxes won't improve schools or attract the kind of teachers Texas needs. For that we need leadership.

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