THERE ARE THOSE WHO ARGUE THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to compare schools—that each one is unique, and that the important lessons students learn, about themselves and about life, cannot be measured, certainly not by any test. We disagree. The fundamental job of an elementary school is to teach kids to read, write, and compute, and those skills can be tested. Education is so important, and the sums the state spends on it are so vast, that measuring the success or failure of each school is a necessity. There is no other way to hold schools accountable for their performance.

The following list rates 3,172 of the elementary schools in Texas. The rating system is based on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, the one consistent, uniform statewide measure of what students are learning. Several hundred schools were excluded from the ratings because they tested fewer than fifty students or contained only one or two grades and thus did not meet the Texas Education Agency’s definition of an elementary school. But TAAS scores alone do not tell us much about how good a job a school is doing. To compare a suburban school with an inner-city school, even in the same area, is to compare apples and oranges. A good rating system has to compare a school with others whose students have similar characteristics.

This rating system, developed by Darvin M. Winick of the Center for Houston’s Future (an affiliate of the Greater Houston Partnership) and Larry Toenjes, a University of Houston sociologist, is based on two numbers—the percentage of children who passed all sections of the TAAS test and the percentage of kids on the free- or assisted-lunch program. The latter number is an accurate reflection of how many students in the school come from backgrounds of poverty. These students are generally at a cultural and an educational disadvantage and tend to score lower on standardized tests. The Winick-Toenjes system compares a school with, say, 80 percent disadvantaged students against other schools with a similar number of disadvantaged students. The question is, How does a school compare with its peers?

The rating system assigns stars for meeting certain goals. The best schools in Texas earned four stars; the worst, none. These are the requirements for earning a star:
• One star if at least 30 percent of the students passed the TAAS test.
• A second star if the school ranked at or above the median passing rate on the TAAS test for schools with a similar percentage of disadvantaged students.
• A third star if at least 70 percent of the students passed the TAAS test.
• A fourth star if the school had a passing rate on the TAAS test in the top 15 percent of schools with a similar percentage of disadvantaged students.

The Texas Education Agency has its own way of rating schools, but its method is designed to identify the ones that are succeeding grandly or failing badly. That’s useful information, but it doesn’t help the parent who wants to know, “Is my kid’s school just average or pretty good or excellent?” The Winick-Toenjes method answers that question. We believe in this list because it measures the quality of a school by how far the school took its kids compared with where the kids started. Thus, a school with 0 to 10 percent disadvantaged kids needs a passing rate of 94.4 percent to be a four-star school, while a school with 90 to 100 percent disadvantaged kids needs a passing rate of 72.2 percent. Any school with only 0 to 10 percent disadvantaged kids that gets just one star must have some serious problems. Any school that earns four stars is doing a great job. Any school that has 90 to 100 percent disadvantaged kids and earns four stars is doing a great job in the face of adversity.

From the list of four-star schools, we have chosen three to visit: one from a suburb, one from a city, one from South Texas. Each is very different, yet each is fundamentally the same. They accept no excuses for failure, and together they prove that no school should settle for less.—The Editors