A state's fix-it plan for schools

Interview / Texas Gov. George W. Bush

Texas has won national acclaim for how quickly it has improved student achievement, especially among black and Hispanic students. It is the lone state to hold schools accountable for showing that all groups of students are learning up to state standards.

But critics say the Texas Assessment of Academic Standards (TAAS) is too easy a test, and that large achievement gaps persist between white students and the state's black and Hispanic majority.

Last week Gov. George W. Bush (R) spoke with the Monitor about his efforts to improve the system. Excerpts follow:

On the need for an accountability system:

You don't know if you don't measure. Measuring allows a state to say thanks to those who are succeeding and to say to those who are failing: Change.

We're using the accountability system to end social promotion, or to put it another way, to make sure that people get extra help or extra time on task, as needed, to be sure that no one gets left behind. That's why we have a bar in the first place.

On criticism that Texas set the bar too low:

The important thing is to have a bar. Ultimately, you want the bar to be as high as it can be. We are continuing to raise the bar. We started very low, and now we're moving it up year by year.

On labeling a school "exemplary," while many students only perform marginally on national tests:

It's important to be straightforward. And if children are having trouble meeting standards, we need to say that. The labels attached to schools ought to be transparent. We ought to address that.

On reports of cheating on state tests:

People who hedge, cheat - fudge on the accountability system - do the children a disservice.

What we're interested in is children learning, and any administration that wants to hide reality needs to be exposed and punished. We just had a case in Austin on this issue. The accountability system has got to be able to say, "We're not meeting expectations, therefore, let's adjust." If we don't know that the system needs to be adjusted because somebody is fudging on the exam, then action needs to be taken. So yes, my office has sent word to the commissioner of education that we want to blow the whistle on cheating.

On criticism that the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills is getting easier:

I haven't heard criticism that the TAAS test is easy. I've heard the criticism that the TAAS test is racist or that the TAAS test is too much government. There are some who think we ought not to measure because it's racist. What's racist is not to educate children.

On vouchers:

If we try a pilot program in Texas, the idea would be to enhance public education.... If people decide to leave a failed school, what hopefully will happen is that everybody will say, "We'd better get our act together and improve."

On the role of an "education president:"

A president can use the bully pulpit to herald best practices, encourage charter schools, and the expansion of advanced placement programs.

But it's very important not to federalize education. We must align authority and responsibility at the local level. The federal government should dispense money with as few strings attached as possible.

On ending social promotion:

The social-promotion program starts with people entering kindergarten next year. We want to make sure that they're up to grade level by the third grade and remain at appropriate grade levels.

On students that move to Texas reading below grade level:

It's a major problem. Hopefully, principals will use money we have available to assign these kids to remedial reading classes, so they at least learn to read.

On the value of public education:

Public education is the most important thing a state does, and we've got to get it right. And we're beginning to get it right by setting high standards and by measuring and by aligning authority and responsibility at the local level.

I am also a big believer in giving educational entrepreneurs outlets for creativity and energy, such as the charter-school movement. I think it's going to make an enormous difference in Texas. We're still in the start-up stages with our charter-school movement.

On why 23 percent of Texans can barely read (English):

There are a lot of citizens who came here from Mexico and can't read. My focus is on public education, and in Texas we're making great progress. Hopefully, those adult literacy numbers will improve as our children learn to read.

WHAT IS SOCIAL PROMOTION?: The practice allows students to advance to the next grade with their peer group even if they have not mastered grade-level knowledge and skills. The national push for greater accountability has raised promotion as a key reform issue. Some observers argue that holding kids back can boost dropout rates; others say the higher standard will force schools to improve and encourage kids to work harder.

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