All eyes on Reform

Texas has been a leader in toughening up its education system -but how

The Texas "miracle" kicked off in 1984, when businessman Ross Perot toured the state to convince citizen-fans that a high school quarterback who is not passing in school shouldn't do so at the game: No pass, no play. Education vs. Football in Texas - hardly a fair matchup. The campaign set off chuckles nationwide.

But this time, the underdog won. Texas went on to pioneer one of the most comprehensive systems of education accountability in the nation. Soon, the state's math and reading scores headed out of the basement.

Now, its governor, George W. Bush, is running for president, and Exhibit A in that quest is his state's educational gains. Governor Bush's candidacy is focusing new scrutiny on the Texas record - and raising key issues for reform movements nationwide.

These focus on two concerns: Are the gains real? And is the system fair?

The Texas businessmen who powered reform through the state legislature in the 1980s and '90s built measurement into every aspect of the new system. Its key is a requirement that schools report results on statewide tests by race, ethnicity, and poverty level. For a school to achieve an exemplary rating, all groups must pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). To graduate, students must clear an exit exam - eight tries allowed. And student achievement factors into the evaluation of teachers.

Supporters say that this system creates a clear incentive for teachers to teach and students to learn. From 1990 to 1997, Texas outranked nearly every other state in gains on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress. Most recently, its black and Hispanic students ranked No. 1 and 2 in the nation on the 1999 NAEP writing assessment.

In addition to its accountability system, Texas has lowered class sizes in Grades K-4 and provided pre-K education for all children.

"About 10 or 12 years ago, we used to say we were doing well in Texas because our kids scored better than they did in Louisiana and Arkansas," says Darvin Winick, an education consultant who helped develop the Texas accountability system. "Then, we said that that's not the comparison we're interested in: We want to know how we do compared with the big industrial multiethnic states like California and New York."

"Not one of those big industrial states tops Texas in hardly any measure. The 'miracle' is that Texas now scores in the same magnitude and often beats the scores of Connecticut, Vermont, Wisconsin, and other high-performing and high-spending states," he adds. (These comparisons are not of average scores, but contrast results by income, ethnicity, and race. "Averages don't tell you anything. Until you look at the demographics, you don't understand how states are really doing," he says.)

But critics insist that pressure to show gains on the TAAS is contorting teaching into test prep and setting up high-stakes roadblocks that limit prospects for African-American and Hispanic students. At the same time, the volume of data generated by these reforms is giving independent investigators a platform to challenge official claims.

"Some of Texas' claims are so striking they border on the incredible," comments national education writer Peter Schrag in The American Prospect this month.

As early as 1995, the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County (TRA) reanalyzed state data to show that some Texas schools were posting big gains - and winning national awards - by excluding large numbers of students from the test. (This glitch still distorts many state and even national testing results.) Last year, the TRA reported that state math and reading tests were written well below grade level, and that apparent student gains could be the result of dumbing down the TAAS. Texas officials dismiss the claims, but in August reaffirmed a commitment to raise the level of the test to fit higher state standards.

"Citizens in Texas have vastly more access to information about education than citizens in any other state. Without the system that the legislatures have put in place, critics like us would have a very difficult time getting to the truth," said TRA President George Scott in an interview after the report's 1999 release. (He no longer speaks on the record as an official of the TRA.)

The strongest recent challenge to the Texas system came from a suit filed in a San Antonio federal court by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) against the Texas Education Agency, which was settled in the TEA's favor on Jan. 7. The court noted a disparity between minority and majority pass rates on the TAAS that "must give pause to anyone looking at the numbers." But it ruled that the plaintiffs had not proved that the adverse impact from the test outweighs its positive impact - or that other approaches would meet the goal of holding schools, students, and teachers accountable for education.

"The receipt of an education that does not meet some minimal standards is an adverse impact just as surely as failure to receive a diploma," said US district judge Ed Prado in his ruling.

However, testimony submitted in this case pulled together some of the most critical material on the Texas system to date. One of the strongest claims was that the TAAS exit exam encourages minorities to drop out.

In a briefing the day the decision was announced, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University charged that the test deepens education inequity. The TAAS system raises test scores "at the expense of substantive learning," said Linda McNeil, a Rice University professor who was a witness for the plaintiffs in the MALDEF case.

Texas officials criticized Professor McNeil's use of anecdotal evidence. "If those claims were accurate, we wouldn't be seeing such improvement on the NAEP," says Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Prominent civil rights activists at the briefing also challenged the claim that testing is unfair to minorities. "Holding people accountable has been an important idea, and you can't do that without using some testing instrument," says William Taylor, vice chairman of the Washington-based Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

A recent study by the New-York based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which promotes education reform, found that "unacceptable results" on the TAAS drove the Corpus Christi School District to strengthen standards and expectations for students, including requiring all eighth-graders to finish Algebra 1.

"Poor children [in Texas] are getting what they never had before: a common expectation and a common curriculum," says Anne Lewis, who drafted the foundation's study on standards-based reform in urban middle grades. "Until that floor was there, you didn't know what teachers were teaching and children were learning."

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