Yet Another Texas"Miracle"-vs- Mirage Story
- To: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Subject: Yet Another Texas"Miracle"-vs- Mirage Story
- From: CMWUNCHEEL@aol.com
- Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2003 10:51:03 EST
Hi, Y'all -
A friend in my SOL-poster-child school system - which also doesn't much
bother to teach kids how to take notes or highlight anything (see the ending),
or even to critically read anything longer than a one-screen article, b/c
we're also now the iBook-for-every-2d'y-student and "digital curriculum content"
capital of the world) - sent this.
Too bad not enough people paid any attn. to all the pre-2000 articles and
research papers about the Tex. ed. "miracle" and still aren't paying attn. to
the continuing steady stream...
Gains in Houston Schools: How Real Are They?
NY Times - December 3, 2003
By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO and FORD FESSENDEN
HOUSTON - As a student at Jefferson Davis High here, Rosa
Arevelo seemed the "Texas miracle" in motion. After years
of classroom drills, she passed the high school exam
required for graduation on her first try. A program of
college prep courses earned her the designation "Texas
At the University of Houston, though, Ms. Arevelo
discovered the distance between what Texas public schools
called success and what she needed to know. Trained to
write five-paragraph "persuasive essays" for the state
exam, she was stumped by her first writing assignment. She
failed the college entrance exam in math twice, even with a
year of remedial algebra. At 19, she gave up and went to
"I had good grades in high school, so I thought I could do
well in college," Ms. Arevelo said. "I thought I was
getting a good education. I was shocked."
In recent years, Texas has trumpeted the academic gains of
Ms. Arevelo and millions more students largely on the basis
of a state test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills,
or TAAS. As a presidential candidate, Texas's former
governor, George W. Bush, contended that Texas's methods of
holding schools responsible for student performance had
brought huge improvements in passing rates and remarkable
strides in eliminating the gap between white and minority
The claims catapulted Houston's superintendent, Rod Paige,
to Washington as education secretary and made Texas a model
for the country. The education law signed by President Bush
in January 2002, No Child Left Behind, gives public schools
12 years to match Houston's success and bring virtually all
children to academic proficiency.
But an examination of the performance of students in
Houston by The New York Times raises serious doubts about
the magnitude of those gains. Scores on a national exam
that Houston students took alongside the Texas exam from
1999 to 2002 showed much smaller gains and falling scores
in high school reading.
Compared with the rest of the country, Houston's gains on
the national exam, the Stanford Achievement Test, were
modest. The improvements in middle and elementary school
were a fraction of those depicted by the Texas test and
were similar to those posted on the Stanford test by
students in Los Angeles.
Over all, a comparison of the performance of Houston
students who took the Stanford exam in 2002 and in 1999
showed most did not advance in relation to their
counterparts across the nation. More than half of them
either remained in the same place or lost ground in reading
"Is it better or worse than what's going on anywhere else?"
said Edward H. Haertel, a professor of education at
Stanford University. "On average it looks like it's not."
Stanford University has no relationship to the test.
In an interview, Dr. Paige defended Texas's system, saying
that it had gradually raised the standards for success over
the last 20 years. "Texas measures far more than minimal
skills," he said. "The bar is far above what other
But questions about Houston's accomplishments are
increasing. In June, the Texas Education Agency found
rampant undercounting of school dropouts. Houston school
officials have also been accused of overstating how many
high school graduates were college bound and of failing to
report violent crimes in schools to state authorities.
The Houston officials strenuously defend the district's
Kathryn Sanchez, head of assessment for Houston's schools,
said students were doing well on both the Texas exam and
the Stanford test, given the city's large number of poor
and minority students. Ms. Sanchez said that Houston
students had also done well on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, a federally mandated test widely
referred to as "the nation's report card."
On that test, fourth graders in Houston and New York outdid
children in four other cities in writing, to score at the
national average. Fourth graders in New York and Houston
also led children in other cities in reading, yet fell
short of the national average. Of all six cities, however,
Houston excluded the most children with limited English
from taking the national assessment, and some researchers
suggest that removing such students may have helped raise
But in interviews, Houston school officials acknowledge
that the progress in the elementary grades peters out in
high school. About 13,600 eighth graders in 1998 dwindled
to fewer than 8,000 high school graduates. Though 88
percent of Houston's student body is black and Latino, only
a few hundred minority students leave high school "college
ready," according to state figures.
Miracle or Mirage?
With its own exam to measure pupil achievement, Texas
managed to show educational progress over the last decade
on a scale rarely, if ever, achieved before. But as the
state's paradigm for school accountability became law for
the rest of the nation, the authenticity of Texas's
accomplishments has become a major question in education
The Stanford test provides a useful contrast to the state
exam, at least for Houston. More than 75,000 students in
grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 took the state exam as well
as the Stanford test from 1999 to 2002. The Times analyzed
performances on these tests, excluding students in special
education, and had educational testing experts review the
results. The data were obtained under the state's open
records act by George Scott, president of the Tax Research
Association of Houston and Harris County, a taxpayers
"I don't think there was a miracle," said Robert L. Linn,
co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation,
Standards and Student Testing at the University of
Colorado, who reviewed the calculations. "There were some
good positive results, but not extraordinary results like
TAAS seemed to show."
The modest improvements in Houston have implications for
the national debate. "If you anticipate that you can have
the gains shown on TAAS - and that's what No Child Left
Behind would be requiring in many states - that's not going
to be likely to happen, based on this," Dr. Linn said.
The Times analysis of performance on the Stanford
Achievement Test and the Texas exam shows this:
¶Houston students improved from 1999 to 2002 in most
grades, but at only a fraction of the rate portrayed by the
state exam. Using a widely employed statistical measure
that allows different kinds of tests to be compared called
effect size, the gains in the average scores on the
Stanford test were about a third of the average gain in the
¶Even students with the poorest skills posted high scores
on the Texas test. In reading, a passing score of 70 on the
test was the equivalent to scores below the 30th percentile
in national ranking on the Stanford test in every grade. In
10th grade, passing the state exam was equivalent to the
fifth percentile in the national ranking.
¶While the Houston gains on the Stanford test in some
grades were large enough to be considered significant in
educational testing, the city was not making much headway
when compared with national averages. Some 57 percent of
Houston students who took the math test in 1999 and 2002,
and 51 percent of those who took the reading test, saw
their standing relative to children around the country
either fall or remain the same.
¶On the Stanford tests, the average reading scores for
Houston students of all races in grades 9 through 11 have
actually dropped since 1999. By contrast, the reading
scores for 10th graders on the Texas exam - the only high
school grade in which the state test is given - showed a
large gain over the same period.
¶The achievement gap between whites and minorities, which
Houston authorities have argued has nearly disappeared on
the Texas exam, remains huge on the Stanford test. The
ranking of the average white student was 36 points higher
than that of the average black student in 1999 and fell
slightly, to 34 points, in 2002.
"This says that the progress on TAAS is probably
overstated, possibly by quite a margin," said Daniel Koretz
of the Harvard School of Education, who also reviewed The
Times's analysis, "And when all is said and done, Houston
looks average or below average."
Tougher Texas Test
While Texas minority students have made gains on the
federal government's mandated national assessment test of
reading and math, they were already largely ahead of the
average scores of minority students from around the country
before the current Texas accountability system began in
In Houston, the share of college-bound high school
graduates that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating
Board deemed "college ready" fell to 28.5 percent, or 977
students in 2001, from 33.7 percent, or 1,155 students, in
2000, according to the latest figures available. The board
counts only graduates who seek admission to public
institutions of higher education in Texas, and says another
10 to 15 percent may seek admission elsewhere.
But many here saw the replacement of the Texas exam last
spring with a tougher exam as the most stinging indictment
of the test. On the new test, the Texas Assessment of
Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, race gaps widened, and
passing rates fell.
Officials here now say that TAAS was only a test of
"minimal skills," paving the way for ratcheting up
standards with a new exam.
Dr. Paige contends that the TAAS and Stanford tests could
not be compared because the Texas test gauges mastery of
the Texas curriculum while the Stanford test measures a
more general notion of what children should know in a given
But education researchers disagreed.
"These two tests ought to be telling the same story, and
they're telling different stories," said Dr. Haertel, of
Dr. Paige also argued that statistical anomalies in the
results on the Texas test made comparisons impossible. But
testing experts who examined those anomalies said that, if
anything, they would reduce the disparities between the two
Watching Children Struggle
In one way or another, Jo Arevelo, Rosa's mother, has
watched each of her children struggle through an
educational system that was focused tightly on producing
high test scores on state exams.
Last summer, Ms. Arevelo tutored her youngest daughter,
10-year-old Angelica, in spelling. Because the state exam
does not test spelling, Angelica's teacher never got to it,
Ms. Arevelo said one recent afternoon.
Earlier that day, her son, Joseph, took the preparatory
exam for the SAT college entrance test, but like many other
children that day, he left the exam in frustration -
mystified by vocabulary words like parallelism and
euphemism, words he had never encountered in school.
Patricia Anderson, a veteran social studies teacher in
Houston, said she was not surprised. Noticing that her high
school students could not answer questions after reading
passages in their textbooks, she began giving them a
vocabulary test at the fourth grade level. Typically, she
said, "They flunk it."
"We're all very very frustrated, because all these great
scores are coming out of the elementary schools, and when
they get to high school it's not happening," Ms. Anderson
said. "They do not have the skills they need."
It was not always like this. Many parents welcomed the
accountability system that the Houston district pioneered
in the 1980's and early 1990's. It was a way, they
reasoned, to force schools in poor neighborhoods not to
write off their children.
And in some places, it seemed to work, said Rene Barrios,
lead organizer for the Metropolitan Organization, a chapter
of a group that monitors public services. But in many other
places, Ms. Barrios said, the system became the single most
important measure of school success and the test itself,
for many teachers, became the curriculum. "The whole system
has been taken over by the test," she said.
Rosa Arevelo, who graduated from Davis High with a B
average, tried to keep pace in college. She made flash
cards to help her remember what she studied. She had never
learned how to take notes in high school, so at her
lectures in college, she took down everything the teacher
Her textbook looks as if it is filled with neon lights:
entire paragraphs are highlighted in bars of bright pink
and yellow. In the unrelenting array of information, she
could not tell what mattered.
"When you get to college," she said, "you're just supposed
to know. But nobody ever taught us."
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