texasmonthly.com: Why did Texas Monthly decide to publish a ranking of nearly all Texas schools?

S. C. Gwynne: We had heard that there was this nonprofit group in Austin called Just for the Kids that was doing amazing things in analyzing school test data. When we investigated a bit further, we found that what it was doing was a quantum jump beyond the current TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] rankings that you see in the newspapers. We had been looking for a good story on education—which seems to be at the top of every politician’s list of things to fix in Texas—and this was a perfect fit.

texasmonthly.com: How did you find out about Just for the Kids?

SG: Our editor, Evan Smith, found out about what the organization was doing from Just for the Kids’ founder, Tom Luce. The interesting thing about Just for the Kids [JFTK] is that, even though it had been running an analysis of Texas elementary and middle schools for a few years and making the results available on its Web site at no cost to users, most people in the state—and even most educators—did not know about the nonprofit group. We became interested in JFTK just as it started to make its first big public awareness push. About 1,500 Texas schools now work with JFTK in some fashion—out of about 6,500 public schools in the state. We talked to a number of national experts, and they all told us that, even though JFTK was not widely known, it represented the state of the art in educational test analysis.

texasmonthly.com: How difficult was it to sort through the data?

SG: This is the single largest educational data crunch that has ever been done on public schools—four million students, 1,100 school districts. JFTK’s analysis goes grade by grade and subject by subject, and is able to track individual student performance at high and middle school levels to see, for example, how schools did with students who were performing poorly when they came to the school. This represents years of work. [Note: High school data won’t be available until December 1, 2001.]

texasmonthly.com: Do you believe the rankings that JFTK uses are fair?

SG: They are the fairest rankings ever done here. The current system just measures a school’s TAAS passing rate, so poor schools were being directly compared with rich schools (“poor” being defined as a school with high numbers of its students on the federal free lunch program). With good reason, many of these schools with hard-to-educate students protested that it was unfair to expect the same performance from a school in Dallas’ wealthy Highland Park as from a school in Brownsville with 80 percent of its students economically disadvantaged and 75 percent of its students with low English proficiency. These rankings adjust for both affluence and for English proficiency. Schools are statistically compared only with other schools with similar or harder to educate students.

texasmonthly.com: The JFTK rankings involve TAAS. Do you think the state should use another method of testing its students other than the TAAS?

SG: We think TAAS is a pretty good test. If you think otherwise, you might want to go to the Texas Education Agency’s Web site (tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/) and look at sample tests, grade by grade. It would be hard to argue that students in Texas should not be required to know the materials on these tests. On the other hand, there has been a great deal of TAAS abuse. This happens when a school spends endless hours teaching last year’s TAAS or teaching test-taking methods at the expense of the rest of the curriculum. The good news is that schools are realizing that, while you can certainly help prepare children to take the TAAS, you are far better off teaching the wider state curriculum, known as the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).

texasmonthly.com: From all of the data you received from JFTK, what did you find to be the most surprising information?

SG: The most surprising thing was how many schools that had perfectly good TAAS “passing” rates really did not do very well when measured by the higher standards of “proficiency.” It amounts to the difference between getting a 70 and getting an 85, and a lot of schools are going to have to make this painful adjustment. A number of National Blue Ribbon schools fall into this category.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think the JFTK rankings will be implemented throughout the state as a measuring tool in the near future?

SG: I think the ratings will soon be accepted as the norm in Texas and in many other states. JFTK is currently running data on schools in seven other states. And now that JFTK is part of the National Center for Educational Accountability at the University of Texas, it is going to be doing this for many more states.

texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the biggest problem with the state’s school system?

SG: The biggest problem is what it has always been—lack of accountability. Since the early nineties, when the state started administering the TAAS, we have seen amazing improvements in public education. It is a direct result of accountability, which means, more than anything else, the ability of a community to assess the quality of its schools. You can’t fix something unless you know what’s broken. The JFTK analysis represents a new and tougher standard of accountability.

texasmonthly.com: As a parent, how useful do you find these rankings?

SG: I got a huge kick out of going to JFTK’s Web site and looking at how my daughter’s third grade reading program stacks up to the rest in the state. And I was thrilled to find out that my daughter’s school—Forest Trail in the Eanes District west of Austin—was as good as we parents thought it was: five stars. I think all parents will be fascinated by this and want to know more about their children’s schools.