How Good Is Your Kid’s School?
Forget about those TAAS rankings you see in the paper. We've found a far more accurate rating system for just about every elementary, middle, and high school in Texas. Does your child's school get five stars—or (uh-oh) just one?
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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 bilingual students to the fifth grade. All of this has been achieved in a short time.
When asked how she manages this, ninth-year principal Rosalinda Stillman has a quick answer. “A lot of it comes from our individual reading program,” she says. “We ensure that every child in kindergarten through second grade reads with a teacher, one-on-one, every day.” All children have reading folders, in which their daily progress is carefully watched. They are asked to summarize what they read, and if their words-per-minute speed slows, “I have to find resources quickly,” says first-grade teacher Margarita Gutierrez, who teaches her class in Spanish. Stillman and her staff also build in a great deal of in-school tutoring. Though students can take TAAS tests in Spanish up to the sixth grade, at Margo a mere 27 students (out of some 240) still took the TAAS reading test in Spanish in fourth grade. And to monitor the progress of her students, Stillman tests them often. The children wear uniforms, stand in orderly lines in the lunchroom and on the playground, and are told from the time they enter kindergarten that they are expected to do very, very well.
But the high performance of Margo Elementary cuts both ways. Since it is one of the top ten schools in its economic category, in JFTK’s analysis it becomes one of the benchmarks against which other schools with comparable student populations are measured. What this means is that a school on the border with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students no longer has an excuse for mediocrity: If Margo can do it, so can they. And if they want to learn how, they can find out what Margo is doing and emulate it.
The JFTK data can make schools in the upper economic groups look bad too. A lot of this stems from the difference between passing and high-performing scores. Many schools are going to find that, while their passing rates are respectable, their proficiency ratings are poor when compared with their peers. And official designations like “National Blue Ribbon School,” proudly trumpeted by 32 public elementary schools in Texas, will come under new scrutiny. That’s because the standards of the federal government’s nineteen-year-old Blue Ribbon Schools Program are only partly quantitative. For example, Baty Elementary in the Del Valle ISD, near Austin, is one of Texas’ National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2000 and 2001. But in the JFTK rankings, it is only a two-star school whose average TAAS proficiency scores were 48 in reading and 41 in math, putting the school a whopping 27 points below the best schools in its economic group. Another Blue Ribbon school is Olmos, in the North East district of San Antonio. In the JFTK list, it is only a three-star school that scores an average of 14 points below comparable schools. Not terrible, but perhaps not blue-ribbon quality either.
As JFTK’s data—easily available on its Web site (see “Web Feat,” page 124)—percolate through the state, there will no doubt be continued grumbling about the TAAS itself. Just as there has been a national school-accountability boom, there has been a corresponding backlash against state-required testing. It happened in part because there have been many, many abuses—schools not only trying to teach to last year’s TAAS but also sacrificing large slices of worthy curriculum to prepare students for the test (and, sad to say, some incidents of outright cheating). What makes such abuses even worse is that, according to Treisman, a few hours of test prep is all that is really useful for the TAAS. Since it is a random sampling of the state curriculum, teaching last year’s test doesn’t work very well. Says Rosalinda Stillman: “You can try that, but you’ll never get to be an exemplary school. No exemplary schools that I know teach to the TAAS.”
The best schools, like Hambrick Middle School in the high-performing Aldine district, north of Houston, seem to be the ones that give the most tests. Hambrick is a good example of how testing can be used to closely monitor students’ progress. At Hambrick 82 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. Of its 1,048 students, 758 are Hispanic, 226 are black, and 56 are white. Considering what Hambrick’s teachers are up against, its scores are amazingly good. Eighty-seven percent of Hambrick’s eighth-grade students were proficient on the TAAS reading test and 83 percent were proficient in math. Hambrick also does well with marginal students. Of students who had failed math in elementary school, 54 percent reached proficiency by eighth grade and 85 percent passed. Of students who failed elementary school reading, 45 percent gained proficiency and 81 percent passed by eighth grade. How does Hambrick do it? “We live by data,” says principal Nancy Blackwell, a smallish woman who has the crisp, confident demeanor of a corporate CEO. “We do a lot of testing, and we spend hours studying the data.” Indeed, on the walls of almost every classroom at Hambrick are posted test-tracking charts that list each student’s performance on a continual battery of tests. Blackwell uses these tests to spot weaknesses and then to pounce on them. Children who lapse are instantly bustled into the school’s massive after-hours tutoring program. “There is no complacency here,” says Blackwell. “We are constantly raising the bar.” She could just as easily have been talking about JFTK’s new system; everywhere, in every Texas school, the standards are about to go up.
With reporting by Erin Donnelly.