Search the rankings using the form above to find the most accurate and most comprehensive ranking of Texas schools ever produced—a massive data crunch involving some four million students in kindergarten through twelfth grade at nearly 5,400 schools in more than one thousand school districts. The analysis—using data from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, or TAAS—was done by a nonprofit group called Just for the Kids (JFTK), which recently became a partner, along with the University of Texas and the Education Commission of the States, in the UT-based National Center for Educational Accountability. The center’s goal is to bring this same analysis to schools in the rest of the country. And indeed JFTK has already been chosen by seven states to process and interpret their test data in ways similar to what was done here.
The interest in school rankings is a measure of how firmly—and quickly—the testing movement has taken hold not just in Texas but all over the country. Rigorous, state-run educational testing has been going on for only the past twenty years. Perhaps predictably, the movement gained momentum in the South, in states that traditionally had some of the worst school systems in the country: in Bill Clinton’s Arkansas, Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee, and George W. Bush’s Texas, among others. It is no accident that two of these three governors later became presidents and Alexander was Secretary of Education and twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Their success in reforming their states’ educational systems helped propel them into national politics.
Maybe you remember the bad old days of Texas public education, before accountability was the cornerstone of state policy: when large numbers of students were thought to be unteachable, when athletes could flunk and still make all-district, when promotion was automatic even for students who could not read, and when it was impossible to do anything about terrible schools because it was impossible to prove that they were really as awful as everyone knew they were. If you do recall those times, then you know how profoundly the TAAS has changed education in this state. It has also drawn a great deal of attention to the schools themselves and created a strong desire among parents to find out just how good, or how bad, their children’s schools are.
Among the people with this curiosity was Dallas attorney Tom Luce, who has been associated with education reform in Texas since 1983, when he worked alongside Ross Perot to bring testing and accountability to Texas public schools. In 1995 Luce set up Just for the Kids to take the use of educational testing in Texas to a new level. “We were generating a massive amount of data,” says Luce, “but I didn’t feel that we were using it in the right way.”
To Luce, the right way meant not simply looking at a school’s TAAS passing rate (a grade of 70) but considering its proficiency rate (a grade of 85). A student who barely passed still had a lot of gaps in his education, the theory went, but a student who was proficient demonstrated a substantial level of achievement. Just as many schools were getting their TAAS scores up to passing, JFTK was saying that the bar should be raised.
The second change was to compare schools with others that have similar student characteristics. JFTK realized that it made no sense to lump schools that had a high percentage of students who were economically disadvantaged and had little or no fluency in English with schools at which most students came from affluent families and grew up speaking English. If schools were ranked only with their true counterparts and it turned out that some were achieving good results while others were not, the underperforming schools would have no excuse for failure.
Such an approach represents a sea change in the way schools are looked at and, through greater accountablility, puts pressure on them to improve as never before. “The reason that the JFTK data are interesting,” says Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at UT-Austin and the director of the Charles A. Dana Center, an education think tank on the university’s campus, “is that they take the single most debilitating myth in education—that it’s the children who determine the outcomes of education—and prove it wrong.” He is referring to data that show, grade by grade, that schools in poor areas often do better than schools in much wealthier areas. “People who think that it’s really the children are forced to acknowledge that it is really the schools and that there are plenty of schools with economically disadvantaged children who outperform even schools from affluent districts. This points to adults as the problem and goes deeply against the traditional explanations.”
At Dr. Rodolfo E. Margo Elementary School in Weslaco, what Treisman is saying is immediately apparent. The school is in the Rio Grande Valley, just a few miles from the border—an area where, as Treisman points out, “people have the idea that kids are not fluent in English and so that means the schools are automatically worse.”
The opposite is true, both at Margo and in the Weslaco Independent School District. Though 1,197 of the school’s 1,351 overwhelmingly Hispanic students are economically disadvantaged—meaning they qualify for federal free-lunch programs—and nearly 600 have limited proficiency in English, Margo produces amazing results. On the fourth grade reading test, 97 percent passed and 80 percent were proficient. In math, 100 percent passed and 71 percent were proficient—the latter number is up from less than 30 percent in 1994. Probably the most remarkable thing about Margo is that, in addition to teaching its students the three R’s, it is also teaching almost half of them English at the same time, delivering fully