Academic journal article Policy Review

The Gold Star State

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Gold Star State

Article excerpt

How Texas jumped to the head of the class in elementary school achievement

If funding and demography were vital to educational performance, then Texas would likely have one of the worst public-school systems in the nation. Spending per pupil in the Lone Star State is well below the national average, and teachers' pay ranks 35th among the states. One-third of the state's schoolchildren qualify for federal education aid to disadvantaged students under the Title I program, and among the states Texas has the fourth-highest percentage of school-age children living in poverty. Nearly half the state's public-school students are black or Hispanic, minority groups that historically have done poorly on national achievement tests.

Yet within the past few years, Texas has become one of the highest-performing states in the nation. Consider a few telling statistics:

* Among the 39 states that participated in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in fourth-grade math, Texas finished in the top 10, right alongside states such as Maine, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, which have far fewer low-income and minority students.

* The state's black fourth-graders and Title I fourth-graders scored higher in math, on average, than their counterparts in every other state, and its Hispanic children finished sixth.

* White fourth-graders in Texas had the highest average math score in the nation.

* Between 1992 and 1996, the percentage of Texas fourth-graders achieving at or above the NAEP's "proficient" level in math rose from 15 to 25 percent, far outstripping improvements nationwide. Similarly, the share of Texas children scoring below the "basic" level (the lowest tier on the NAEP) fell from 44 percent to 31 percent during the same period.

* Like every other state, Texas still has a broad racial chasm: In fourth-grade math, 53 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics scored below the "basic" level, compared with 15 percent of whites. But the gap is narrowing faster there than in any other state.

Texas achieved this remarkable turnaround by applying a simple lesson from the corporate world: Educators will find innovative ways to raise achievement if they are given the freedom to experiment and are held accountable for student performance.

Over the course of a decade, Texas lawmakers devolved more and more decisionmaking authority to local districts and schools. Meanwhile, they established nationally recognized achievement standards as well as tests to measure whether students had met them. In 1993, with these cornerstones of an accountability system--standards, testing, and autonomy--in place, the state education department (known as the Texas Education Agency, or TEA) began rating schools based on test scores and other factors. The system combines deregulation for schools and high expectations for students of all races and income levels.

"Texas is paying deliberate attention to the fact that you can't leave any group behind," says Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to improving educational opportunities for low-income children. "That sends a powerful message to educators that they have to make their system work for all kids. In Texas, we hear far fewer excuses, like having a lot of minority children, than we do in places like California."

A "Consumer Reports" for Schools

The yardstick for the TEA's ratings is the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a series of yearly tests in reading, writing, and math given to students in grades three through eight and grade 10. Based on the percentage of its students passing the TAAS, as well as on its dropout and attendance rates, each school in the state is labeled "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable," or "low performing." Schools may exempt from the TAAS students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or special-education needs, but no other allowances are made for a school's socioeconomic or demographic circumstances. …

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