How Good Is Your Kid’s High School?

Our updated, expanded ranking of more than 1,100 public high schools in Texas separates the strong from the weak. Five stars means your school is great. One star means…uh, you've got a problem.

November 2002By Comments

ONE YEAR AGO WE PUBLISHED what was then the most accurate and comprehensive ranking of Texas public schools ever (“How Good Is Your Kid’s School?” November 2001), assigning nearly 5,400 elementary, middle, and high schools between one and five stars—five stars signifying one of the best schools in the state, one star one of the worst. In doing so, we tossed out the state’s traditional rating system, which is based on how many students score at least 70 on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests, in favor of one with the tougher standard of “proficiency,” meaning a grade of 85 or better. Also unlike the state, we recognized that low-income schools cannot be compared fairly with high-income schools, so we tweaked the rankings to account for economic disadvantage; schools in poor districts (that is, those with the highest percentage of students on a federally subsidized lunch program) would be compared only with other schools in low-income districts, and so on.

We figured that parents and property-value-conscious homeowners would be interested in such a story, and we were right: Our rankings generated more letters, e-mails, phone calls, and Web site hits from around the state than anything we’ve done in recent memory. No wonder, then, that we’ve opted for an encore.

For our 2002 list—compiled once again by the invaluable data crunchers at the nonprofit National Center for Educational Accountability (formerly Just for the Kids)—we’ve embraced the same tough standards and accounted for the economic well-being of student populations in Texas’ 1,264 school districts. Yet because of a refinement in our methodology, we were able to rank many more high schools than we did last year. You can find our list of 1,112 schools—up from 864 in 2001—starting on page 170 (in the print copy). (We’ve also updated and expanded our rankings of some 4,500 elementary and middle schools; they can be found, along with an electronic version of our high school rankings, at texasmonthly.com.) When you type in your school’s name, you’ll see the number of stars it received and the data used to arrive at its ranking, including TAAS scores. You can also search for all schools in a given school district.

Our rankings are based on a variety of factors, including student performance on the TAAS reading, writing, and math tests for the tenth grade; the school’s success at educating two levels of students—proficient and low-proficient—as measured by junior high school TAAS tests; the promotion rate of first-time ninth graders to tenth grade; the percentage of low-income students at the school, which determines its economic grouping; and the percentage of students taking advanced-placement tests or SAT/ACTs (to qualify for five stars, a high school must have at least 15 percent of its students taking AP tests or at least 70 percent of its students taking SAT/ACTs).

One of the most important data columns this year, however, is student performance on the state-administered end-of-course algebra test. It may be difficult to track trends across such a wide scholastic landscape, but it was startlingly clear from this year’s results that algebra scores determine, in large part, how a school measures up to its peers. Algebra scores were also the main reason schools lost two, three, or even four stars when compared with last year’s rankings. This was a direct consequence of a change in the way we measured algebra performance. Last year the standard was what the Texas Education Agency calls “mastery”: high performance in several algebraic categories. Measured against this standard, nobody did well, so there were minimal performance differences between schools. This year we used a less-rigorous standard: simple “passing.” The result was that a lot of schools did well, thus creating a much wider gap between high performers and low performers.

A few caveats: Although we have ranked the overwhelming majority of Texas high schools, some do not appear on our list. This could be because a school is too small or too new or because the amount and type of data it reports to the state were insufficient. If we haven’t ranked your school, please go to our Web site to find out why. On our list you’ll also see a number of ninth-grade centers, which many districts have built to cope with the growth of student populations. This year the National Center for Educational Accountability has been able to amass enough data to rank many of these centers against their peers.

ONE OF THE PILLARS OF the educational reform movement in America is the belief that bad schools improve by imitating good ones. That’s the whole point of the data analysis done by the National Center for Educational Accountability: to identify the best schools, study what they do, and share their successful practices with the up-and-comers.

This year, the comers could hardly do better than to imitate Jefferson High School in San Antonio. Jefferson is at the lower end of the economic scale: 90.6 percent of its 1,910 students are from low-income families. Most of the parents of Jefferson’s students have never been to college. In Texas and elsewhere, such schools have been difficult or impossible to turn around. Yet in just five years, Jefferson has transformed itself from a mediocre performer into one of the state’s best schools. In 1997 only 46 percent of its students passed the TAAS math test, 76 percent passed the reading, and 70 percent passed the writing. Today its passing scores are 93 percent in math, 94 percent in reading, and 93 percent in writing. Even more impressive, 71.6 percent are proficient in math and 87 percent are proficient in reading. “We reexamined our whole belief system,” says Sylvia De La Peña, who took over as principal three years ago.

The first and most important change was “getting the teachers to admit they need to do a better job,” De La Peña says. “Four years ago everyone was in isolation. There was no collaboration on teaching strategies. The teachers and I began collaborating.” That meant, among other things, gathering and sharing vast amounts of data—primarily test scores—on individual students, assessing their weaknesses, and devising solutions.

Perhaps the most unusual innovation at Jefferson is the notion that students should participate fully in their own education. It sounds simple enough. But De La Peña provides every child with a “profile sheet” containing all of his TAAS test scores from his middle school years as well as all major tests taken in high school—the mythical “file” that schools supposedly keep on every kid in the dark reaches of the principal’s office. “I said, ‘Why should only the teachers have this information? Let’s let the students have it too.’ They became a big part of the change here. They took responsibility for their own learning.” Indeed, at one voluntary TAAS workshop held over a weekend earlier this year, 70 percent of the students taking the tests showed up.

Despite their successes, De La Peña and her staff are not satisfied. This year the school took the added step of requiring all seniors to take pre-calculus—something De La Peña says she has not heard of any other public school doing. And Jefferson is expanding its advanced-placement programs, sending 22 teachers to AP workshops this year.

AT MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL IN the Memorial neighborhood of Houston—another of the best schools—educators face a different set of challenges. The lion’s share of its 2,063 students—73 percent—are white. Fourteen percent are Hispanic, 11 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are black. They tend to come from the extreme ends of the economic spectrum and everywhere in between: Some kids live in million-dollar homes and some live in government-subsidized apartments (roughly 11 percent of Memorial’s students come from economically disadvantaged families). “There are really very few middle-class students here,” says principal Steve Shorter. “I joke that the only middle-class people here are the teachers.”

Like Jefferson, Memorial puts a huge priority on teacher cooperation and collaboration, which is key to its success. The first Wednesday of every month is an early dismissal day, which allows teachers to meet and share success—and failure—stories. When one finds a technique that works, the rest try it. Also like their counterparts at Jefferson, Memorial’s teachers give frequent tests and pay close attention to the results. “We review the data on each student,” says Shorter. “If the student is weak, we can do several things. We can set up tutorials. We also have special classes with a smaller student-teacher ratio, where a teacher can help the student one-on-one.” As a result, Memorial does well with every kind of student: those who failed TAAS tests in middle school, those who passed, and those who were proficient.

Whatever the school is doing, it’s working: More than half of the student body is taking one or more “upper level” courses, meaning advanced placement, pre-advanced placement, honors, or gifted-talented. (This May, 398 juniors and seniors took 871 advanced-placement tests. Eighty percent received scores of 3 or higher out of a maximum of 5.) Memorial had twenty semifinalists for National Merit Scholarships last year, and only 3.5 percent of its students didn’t go on to college. “We have tremendous continuity here,” says Shorter. “I am the fourth principal in forty years. One third of our students’ parents went to Memorial. We have low faculty turnover.”

Memorial also has something that all excellent schools, no matter what their ethnicity or income level, seem to have in great abundance. “Our parental involvement,” says Shorter, “is incredible.” Schools that want to find themselves on next year’s best list would do well to start right there.

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