Unpublished, originally presented to National Review but
To be submitted in a shorter version
Written April-Aug 1998
12422 107th PL NE Kirkland WA 98034
This is Not Just a Test: Re-inventing Dumbed Down Education as "Higher
In my college days at MIT, we used to have a joke about the test that was
so hard that everyone scored below average. But it was no joke when
Washington State has "raised the bar" so high that 80 percent of
Washington's 4th graders, and 95 percent of minorities fell short of new
math standards on its new "performance-based" test.
Conservatives are cheering the return of really hard tests, and joining
the outcry against such "low" performance. But nobody is asking questions
about why a reform movement founded by liberals on the premise that all
will succeed is giving a test that nearly all are flunking. How can 80%
students be performing below grade level expectations when the 50th
percentile level traditionally IS the definition of grade level?
How can you call a score "low" when the kids are just as smart as when
scored average on every other norm-referenced test given to state
What they've done is discard the notion that most will be average in
of expecting that ALL will perform at the highest levels. Yet it is
into practice the untested notion that the only reason not every kid is
good enough to get into Harvard is that we set different standards for
Who and where do these ideas come from? In reality, the call for "higher
standards" and "the new basics" does not come from those who favor basic
skills. Few suspect that the "standards based education" movement it is
just the newest re-invented face of "dumbed-down" outcome-based
In Meredith Wilson's "Music Man", a swindler comes to town selling the
of a school band, but he first needed to convince everyone that there was
"Trouble in River City". Only a tiny cadre of parents mobilized against
Reform know that America's true Secretary of Education Reform is an
unelected man named Marc Tucker. He promises that if we give him enough
years, money, and reforms, all children will master these "world class
standards for the 21st Century". It's too bad that our children would
probably be better off if reformers simply took the money and ran.
As the head of the Washington DC based National Center for Education and
the Economy (NCEE), he has been the leading architect and promoter of the
"Standards-Based Education Reform" movement since the late 1980s. Like a
multi-headed Hydra, the NCEE operates through many different faces as the
New Standards Project, the National Alliance for Restructuring Education,
and Commission on Skills of the American Workplace. Through all of these
fronts, Tucker has signed enough contracts with enough states and
to cover as many half of the public school children in the United States.
In 1992, Tucker outlined his vision to Bill and Hillary Clinton in an
infamous letter widely quoted on the Internet. That vision was based on
landmark 1989 report "High Skills or High Wages". That report also was
basis for the later "SCANS" Secretary's Commission on Necessary Skills
report of the Bush administration. The SCANS report laid the groundwork
federal School-To-Work legislation. This program threatens to put all
American students on a vocational track and transform education into a
of industry. Tucker's latest 1998 book "Standards For Our Schools"
this vision by calling for abolishing the "comprehensive" high school,
as nations like Germany are considering adopting the US system.
Tucker's plan would create a new generation of tough "performance-based"
tests benchmarked at "world class" levels, and radically revamp the
curriculum to deliberately "teach to" the tests. To put an end to
illiterate graduates, Tucker proposes a 10th grade "Certificate of
Mastery" (CIM), which would insure American high school graduates possess
skills as good as those of any nation.
As an article in the April 1998 Phi Beta Kappan magazine states, the
"all kids will learn" will become a reality. All students will be ready
college; there will be no need for tracking or remedial courses. With the
promise of results like that, it's no wonder that both conservative
Republicans and liberal Democrats have embraced this movement.
But the new "accountability" rules resemble the quota-based thinking of
affirmative action. Merely by setting the target date far enough into the
future, it is assumed by that by passing out enough carrots and sticks,
will force all students to pass these tests by some target date set far
into the future.
The flip side of this "promised land" is that is that Tucker and his
friends will control the American equivalent of work permits. For all the
progressive talk about eliminating "punishment" for low achievers, anyone
who does not pass these politically correct "outcomes" will be denied
and training and left out of the brave new 21st century world economy.
It says a lot about the merit of Tucker's original plan when every state
has dropped his original proposal of denying 11th and 12th grade or
entrance to those who do not pass. Indeed, Oregon narrowly defeated
language that would make it illegal to work without a CIM.
Clinton's health care plan was debated and shot down in national debate.
Federal attempts to impose radical new national testing have so far also
met defeat. Opposition is mounting to federal Goals 2000 and "School to
Work" laws that would mandate radical new education standards. But as
Carnine of the University of Oregon told Washington State legislators, it
is the states, not the federal government that is taking over local
with radical new standards.
K12 education takes up half of the budget in states like California and
Washington. "Big Education" is one of America's largest service
on a scale comparable to health care. That makes education a prime target
of social reformers. We've finally arrived at the day when we are
spending more on education than defense. "Reform" is where all of the
liberal nonprofit foundation and government research dollars are now
"Education Reform" is actually "Deform"-ing education. Public polls show
that parents are demanding an emphasis on basic skills. But they don't
realize that "the new basics" they are getting are guided by progressive
education theories. The radicals seek an educationally classless society
just as they have sought to eliminate economic and racial class
with socialism and affirmative action quotas.
They reject basic skills as a foundation precisely because it is the
path for the most successful kids, with the assumption that something
must work for the other kids. So they change the emphasis to "higher
thinking" based on the assumption that underachievers will latch onto
language and problem solving instead.
New constructivist approaches to math and reading replace direct
instruction of basic skills. "Discovery" and "spiral" curriculums are in.
Children are expected to construct, and are graded on concepts like
probability and ratio before they are even first explained to them. They
wonder why students should be deprived of learning to run just because
can’t walk yet.
But emphasis on "higher order" thinking skills only leaves underachievers
up a creek without a paddle by throwing skills 2 or 3 years ahead of
level at kids that are 2 or 3 years behind. If anything, actual evidence
shows the same kids who ace rote learning are even farther ahead in
"Reform" has resulted in spectacular education disasters such as the
Language Wars. Now we have a generation of Californians who can’t read.
Yet, even as some reformers are ready to concede that Whole Language was
misguided failure, these same people are leading states like California
into "Whole Math". Affluent school districts like Palo Alto, unhappy with
90th percentile math scores, jumped into the new constructivist math.
But they only met a revolt when their test scores plummeted to the 60th
percentile. Similar results have been reported in communities in
Vermont and other states. Ironically, one common response is that "the
tests haven't been aligned with the new standards yet".
Outrage with such "reforms" has sparked a new parent and citizen militia
with web sites such as San Diego's famous "Mathematically Correct" site.
The lines being drawn in cyberspace is clear when every pro-reform site
run by different parts of the education industry funded by tax, for-
or foundation money, but every one of the dozens of dissenting sites is
by parents and citizens out of their own pockets.
Parents find their straight-A children placed into remedial math by
placement tests, and get notes from their school to not "impose their own
notions of math" on their children. But the insurgents are making
having succeeded in wresting control of the California’s new state
standards. Where California once decreed that "early memorization of math
facts" is harmful, now they have tough specific basic standards, despite
efforts of state Superintendent Delaine Eastin to keep the multiplication
tables and long division out of the curriculum in the name of "higher"
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NTCM) largely wrote the
book on new "standards". Ironically, this response to low test scores is
largely responsible for the fuzzy "new new" math which results in even
lower scores than before. They complain that students are still spending
too much time in lectures and practicing on worksheets instead of writing
how they feel about math, playing with computers, and using
like counting M&Ms.
Ironically, while the new tests are flunking minorities, their nemesis,
"Direct Instruction" of phonics and math facts remains the only method
proven to lift even the poorest urban minorities to suburban test score
levels. Scores as high as 60th to 85th percentile have been demonstrated
(and largely ignored or attacked) in schools like Thaddeus Lott's Wesley
elementary in Houston, and the Barclay school in Baltimore. Yet textbooks
based on such systems are often condemned to "unapproved lists" because
they have "too many drill problems", and lack units teaching children how
to identify important lesbian Latinos and Africans in science, or how to
use "inventive spelling".
The original educational reform that promised that "All Will Succeed" was
called "Outcome Based Education", or OBE. OBE was itself called
"Mastery-based Education" in the 70s before it was run out of town. OBE
presented to Washington State as "Performance-Based Education" in 1993,
elsewhere, it's being sold as "Standards-Based" Education.
OBE originally set modest goals based on feelings, not academics. George
Cunningham of the University of Louisville is author of the new book
"Assessment in the Classroom: Constructing and Interpreting Tests"
Press). He believes that the new School-To-Work movement spearheaded by
Tucker has wrested OBE away from progressive wimps by replacing feelings
with tests tough enough to impress the conservatives. True progressives
like Alfie Kohn and Jonathan Kozol fear such standards will merely keep
underachievers in their place instead of forcing all to succeed.
Children will no longer be free to decide whether they want to coast with
C or D, or give their lives to nerd-dom. Now teachers will become
storm troopers who will force their kids to achieve at world class levels
... or else.
In the name of "accountability", the schools with the worst performance
will be fined, even though they are generally the ones with the poorest
most minority children. The best schools, who are typically blessed with
the most affluent and talented children, will get financial rewards. Or,
Kentucky found, even the best schools will be penalized if they can't
deliver a magic 10% improvement over perfect scores. Such madness is
perhaps the most glaring defect in trying to blindly apply Total Quality
Management to schools as if they were factories spitting out identical
gears and cogs.
The new tests deliberately bear so little resemblance to current
that you must toss the entire curriculum "root and branch", to quote
Tucker. This is necessary not only to camouflage poor performance on
traditional norm-based tests, but to guarantee initially low scores, and
insure that by forcing schools to "align" their curriculums, they will be
able to show continual improvement each year.
States like Kentucky have been able to brag of such improvement, even as
scores on tests such as the ACT and SAT have fallen. Such "criterion-
tests throw the bell curve to the wind by rating students against a
standard. Scores rise as tests are revised to be easier, and teachers
to the test. People in Washington have noted that the so-called
set by sample tests get progressively easier starting from a nearly
impossible 4th grade test to a difficult 7th grade to a nearly reasonable
10th grade test, which would also give the impression of progress.
Tucker's good fortune is that Clinton chose health care instead of
education reform, which freed him to sign up the education industry at
local and state levels, outside the watchful eyes of the national press.
His plan stated "we plan to use the most effective tools in the arsenal
modern media and the best of community organizing methods". Thus,
Washington's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson
hired the same public relations firm that sells Democratic candidates.
result in Washington and every other like-minded state is newspapers
devoting entire sections to front-page stories and editorials, while none
have quoted even a single critic of the new tests.
They created a "Commission on Student Learning " to engineer the new
Washington's corporate "Partnership for Learning" provides an outlet for
corporations like Boeing, Aldus, and Weyerhauser to bankroll a statewide
"campaign tour" with free breakfasts in fancy hotels, and ads on
tray liners. They also pay for stacks of expensive glossy literature
out at special forums on the new test funded by every local school. While
funding for political campaigns is carefully limited, this stuff is worth
millions, not counting the millions or billions spent actually developing
and administering the test.
The only opposition is by scattered Internet sites and mailing lists such
as the Education Consumers and Fred Battey's Education Loop run by
without a big PR budget or access to forums in local schools. In
state the spin is that this is part of a grass roots movement which were
set in place by a 1993 state law which mandated "Performance-based"
education and testing. But "kitchen militia" mother Chey Simonton found
that in fact, Marc Tucker first proposed that Washington create such a
back in 1991, and he personally helped craft the legislation to codify
state's contract with the NCEE. Tucker and his friends also worked to
developed the processes used identically by Washington and several other
states such as Vermont and Kentucky to create such assessments by using
"consensus" to get committees to all come to the same pre-determined
outcomes and standards, yet appear to be local.
Already, Tucker’s plans have gone astray as Washington and some other
states have since cancelled their contract with Tucker's NCEE. Today many
educators are ignorant or even deny that their reforms were even inspired
by the NCEE. But for all their different names and variations, they all
follow Tucker's original plan, all their benchmark standards and tests
alike. Now the NCEE is behind the newly formed ACHIEVE which seeks to tie
back the various state standards that "got away" back into the national
standards initially envisioned by Tucker.
This spring, Washington State gave the first real run of the "Washington
Assessment of Student Learning" after warning that the new tests were
raising standards and expectations far higher than before. Students would
be measured against what all students should know, not just compared with
an average. Parents were warned to expect high rates of failure.
Terry Bergeson said that 70 percent of 10th graders could be expected to
fall below the "standard" of expected performance, but they wouldn't be
held to that as a graduation standard until this year's 4th graders
eventually graduate. But it would be left up to schools figure out how to
teach children how to respond to tests that require written answers and
"higher order thinking". The challenge would be improve "learning" each
year until all students perform to these "world class standards", and
students are required to pass these "standards" to get their CIM. Similar
headlines could be found in Colorado, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and
numerous other states.
The resulting test is actually typical of the new generation of tests
throw everything we know about "Bell Curve" inspired multiple choice
into the wind. All bias is banished. Students can take as much time as
wish, and testing is broken up over several days. There are no "wrong"
answers when problems are graded on a 1-4 scale from "demonstrates little
skill" up to "meets" or "exceeds" expectations. Even some multiple choice
math problems require written explanations that must be in complete
sentences. Questions are scored by not by computers, but trained experts
who grade "holistically".
Such schemes are already starting to unravel at the seams. Every state
promises achievement of high goals for all, yet no small scale study, let
alone a state, has demonstrated anything close to teaching all students
to meet these "standards". California's ambitious CLAS went down in
after only 2 years. Administrators admitted that the reason no students,
even at the best schools got top "5" scores was that they decided at the
start to give out no such scores in order to emphasize the "need for
reform". Parents sued because it was intruding on values and beliefs, and
scores were completely unreliable.
Kentucky's KIRIS took a billion dollars and seven years to be tossed into
the waste bin of history. It was canceled after massive scoring goofs,
widespread cheating by teachers, and questions as to its validity of
showing alleged progress when every other measure shows declines. Yet
undaunted by such failures, states like Washington believe that they
make the same mistakes, and even Kentucky is replacing KIRIS with nearly
the same thing.
Washington's test was hard. Really hard. Even college-educated parents
baffled by the sample questions. 80% of fourth graders didn't meet the
"standard" for math. About half of kids fell below standard in reading
writing. Bellevue's Somerset elementary, where 90% scored above average
the CTBS was held as proof that the test wasn't too hard. After all, 70%
passed. But anyone who can subtract can tell that means 30% failure, and
that was the best scoring public school in the state.
As much as the tried to banish the Bell Curve, it was simply swept under
the rug, but shifted so that half of kids scored "1" . That means "knows
next to nothing", where the bottom 50 traditionally is the definition of
grade level. So the movement that says, "all will succeed" has created a
test that nearly all will fail.
Everyone has assumed that multiple choice tests are bad for minorities.
if essay tests are harder, and thinking about skills which are not
taught is harder than fact recall, this is going to make any performance
gap even worse. George K Cunningham cites many studies that show this is
precisely what we find in actual results. The press ignored data that
that the Washington minority math scores are nearly one standard
behind whites – the same gap found in hated IQ tests. Even conservative
groups have also started to seize poor minority performance in opposing
Minority leaders were outraged when 95% or nearly all African American
Hispanic minorities failed, as did inner city schools like Renton's
Campbell Hill elementary. Such students were used to scores of 35% to 45%
above average on the CTBS tests. That might be worse than average, but it
was hardly flunking everybody. The California press ignored racial
differences in the 1993 CLAS scores. But half of minorities scored in the
"knows next to nothing" category, compared to one quarter of whites.
Sure, not all disparity is bias. But when the size of the gap depends on
the difficulty of the test, why do we need a test as hard as an IQ test
what "every learner is expected to know"? Tucker wrote in 1992 that he
wanted an end to tests that underestimate" the abilities of minorities,
FairTest enthusiastically favors "performance-based" tests for
But these new tests actually rank minorities even farther behind.
We are told these new tests measure something "entirely different". Yet
whether we look at California's the CLAS, or Washington, the highest
scoring districts and schools were all in the same affluent white
communities like Palo Alto. The worst were all in the same predominantly
minority areas like East Palo Alto, and Oakland. When the Seattle Times
ranked the top and bottom public elementary schools by the CTBS
Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and the new assessment, Somerset,
Lakeridge and West Mercer Island appeared in both top 10 lists (80%-90%
above 50th percentile or 50%-70% met standard). Tulalip, Madrona, and
Thurgood Marshall appeared in both bottom 10 lists (12%-25% above 50th
percentile or 2%-6% met standard).
The University of Tennessee’s Bill Sanders found that in comparisons of
other tests which have a "performance-based" component, the rank ordering
was exactly the same as on the multiple choice parts in every case. So
we've got is a more expensive and less reliable way to get what we
knew with multiple choice machine scored tests.
George Cunningham's book states that it is impossible to set expected
skills without looking at what actual kids can do. How can you say that
of students don't meet expectation when the 50th percentile average kid
in fact what an average kid can do? Cunningham says that there are many
ways to get committees to define Tucker's "how good is good enough", but
they rarely end up at the same place, and almost always end up setting
levels that fail half the population or more.
George Cunningham has noted that although the tests are supposed to based
on written "benchmarks", set at international levels, in practice, the
benchmarks are either chasing the actual tests, or bear no resemblance at
all. Kentucky actually wrote their test first. Washington's math
clearly puts "area = width times height" in the 7th grade column, yet 4th
graders are asked to compare the area of pizzas given their height and
width. Independent probability appears in the 10th grade, yet students
asked if getting heads 6 out of 10 times changes the probability of
heads. Several problems involve concepts such unit conversion, comparing
uncommon fractions. These, and concepts like rates, ratios and computing
probability are all pinned at the 7th grade and higher benchmarks, yet
appear in the 4tt grade test.
Nearly half of the 4th grade questions appear to require skills specified
at the 7th or 10th grade levels, or not mentioned at any grade.
Washington’s test "draft specification" states specifies decimal money is
permitted in the 4th grade, but the "benchmark" specified only whole
numbers. The "specification" assesses for "mean, median and mode" in the
4th grade when they don’t appear until the 7th grade benchmark. The State
Superintendent insists that all questions are compliant. Yet Gordon
of the Commission on Student Learning which created the test, has not
able to confirm compliance, only that they were approved by the
that designed the test. But at least one person who was on a committee
confirms that nowhere in the process did anybody actually check the
assumption that initially submitted problems were compliant to the actual
The first page of a college level SAT sample test actually has more
problems compliant with Washington’s 4th grade benchmarks than their
The SAT also consistently has easier versions of the same problems. None
the half dozen 4th grade textbooks or other state standards I have seen
even begins to explain how to solve half of these problems.
The fact is that since I learned how to solve nearly all of these
by the time I finished my degree at MIT shows its not problem solving at
all, but requiring students to "figure out" what should be directly
to them 2 or 4 grades ahead. The Exemplar organization of Vermont gives a
sample 4th grade project where students are graded on how they apply
concepts of ratio, and the relationship of error to sample size without
ever having been exposed or instructed on any of these statistical
concepts. These traditionally appear in middle or high school textbooks.
Thus testing anything that the student was actually taught is dismissed
mere "rote recall".
Cunningham estimates the level expected of Kentucky seniors to be equal
a typical college graduate student. A student at Tufts wrote in the
Globe that he showed a sample of the Massachusetts test to a friend who
said he recognized some of the problems from a college-level advanced
Marc Tucker's NCEE is peddling its own "New Standards" tests which
newspapers have heralded for being "benchmarked to world standards". But
10th grade solution requires a 2 view dimensioned drawing, and computing
the volume of a truncated frustum a "real life" estimate of the volume of
2 liter soda bottle. Their 4th grade "applied learning "standard is to
design a bicycle trailer complete with a 3 view drawing, and a parts list
complete with "counter sink drill bit". These are clearly not inspired by
any German or Japanese test. For all their locally based "committees" to
draw up benchmarks, there is a common pattern among all these tests of
testing 4th graders for ratio, symmetry, and probability skills which
appear at 7th grade or higher on any corresponding "standards-based"
curriculum. Even the Japanese national math standards save advanced
concepts like symmetry until the 6th grade.
Most "experts" can get away with such outlandishly difficult problems
that most citizens only have a 7th or 8th grade math background. But even
when MIT trained parents question the most obvious violations, they are
brushed aside when Dave Andersen of the Commission of Student Learning
contents that only their committees of math "experts"are qualified to
such a judgements. How can you match language arts skills against any
sensible sequence of skills when every grade simply states "students will
read and write with skill and comprehension"?
Reformers gleefully proclaim that these low scores prove our kids aren't
meeting world standards when they don’t compare against other countries.
is a best kept secret that if you do look at tests which compare world
ranks, US fourth graders ranked near the top in math on the TIMSS
international test. Not only that, but every norm-referenced test shows
Washington students to be equal or above national average. That puts the
very same students to flunked out the WASL at the top of world. So the
tests aren’t comparing students against any established standard of any
state or nation. It is being set against an entirely artificial new
standard deliberately calculated to produce the appearance of failure.
People may criticize the "Lake Wobegon" effect when most states and many
cities appeared to scoring "above average". But the fact is that most
cities and states are the very places that define "average". And while
urban Seattle may be average, detail breakdowns of any city will give
income suburbs and distressed inner cities very highest and lowest
Difficult essay tests are being touted as the latest in test technology.
But they were common a century ago before they were replaced by
machine-scored multiple-choice tests. They proved to be more accurate,
faster, cheaper to score, and applicable to a wide range of abilities.
While people like Tucker attack "multiple guessing" skills, it is the new
tests that often require a guess when there may be more than one, or no
correct answer. There is no way to guarantee the quality of subjective
scoring, when there is little agreement on what constitutes a correct
One famous presentation for the CLAS favored the solution that was not
mathematically correct. Most Washington math samples did not provide
solutions, but the two that did provide "rubrics" were also incorrect.
it is statistically impossible to guess your way to a 99th percentile
on a norm-referenced test.
So what's wrong with teaching these new skills? Well, the new tests are
requiring teachers to spend so much time giving practice on extended
response tests that Cougar Ridge School in Issaquah is telling parents to
help kids learn basic math skills at home. They’re supposed to
on "higher order thinking" in school. And what’s the point of learning
specific 7th grade skills like ratio or proportion if they’re supposed to
be able to "problem solve" these problems in the 4th grade test? George
Cunningham points out that no one has ever been able to demonstrate that
problem-solving skills can be taught at all.
So America is buying into more "accurate" tests with wildly unreliable
scores. They are "world standard", yet they match no written benchmarks
any state or nation. At $25 or more instead of $2.50, they cost ten times
more score, not counting the cost of tossing every old textbook and
revamping every curriculum. It takes days instead of hours out of
instructional time. Class time is devoted to scattershot "problem
sessions instead of teaching and drilling sequentially the basic skills
needed to solve such problems.
These tests allow the magicians of reform to give the illusion of
against the "new" curriculum even as basic skill scores fall into the
basement. They are meant to be fairer to minorities, while slamming them
with nearly complete failure. They are the wave of "innovation" even as
experiences in California and Kentucky have already lead to billion
The real experts on testing such as George Cunningham, and Bill Sanders
both agree "alternative assessment" is simply not suitable for large
testing and high stakes accountability. Yet "Big Education" is completely
sold on any reforms they can sell to a gullible public. Today, "research"
only means programs that were developed by researchers. "Tested" only
that the children didn’t spontaneously explode, not that they’ve been
actually been demonstrated to produce better results.
But even if the tests were accurate and appropriate, they are only the
foundation for an entire flawed standards based education model. No one
asks why the ultimate goal of most of these tests is a 10th grade diploma
when American seniors graduate in the 12th grade? It's because in most
nations, a "world class" education ends at the 10th grade.
Tucker based his plan on Japan and Germany, and similarly inspired United
Nations schemes, which are widely praised for apprenticeships and other
education institutions aimed at students who aren't on the college track,
but send very few students to college. According to Tucker, the United
States has the most insidious system of tracking in the industrialized
world. But no one has checked to find that Marc Tucker's Japan and
don't match his vision at all. They produce illiterate adults just like
do, except that Japan and Germany both track their students to a degree
would tolerate in the US. Both nations use test scores to sort their
students into various grades of high schools.
In Japans "low-status" high schools, local headlines frequently spotlight
teen girls arrested for prostitution. Germany’s Hauptschule is reserved
ineducables such as immigrants. They exit at the 9th grade without a
diploma of any kind. Tucker's CIM is modeled after the "Mittle Reife" for
middle class Germans who attend the Realschule. They essentially exit at
grade 10 for 2 years of apprenticeship at half pay. The Gymnasium is
reserved for tiny elite of the university-bound who have to pass tough
exams to get into the best schools, and exit at the 12th and 13th grades,
skipping vocational job experiences entirely.
The German apprentice system is a carryover from the Middle Ages when
school was reserved for the few elite. Vocational schools date from
WWII when most did not finish high school. Today, these work-track
institutions are an anachronism when nearly all aspire to college. They
have become dumping grounds for the losers who don't have test scores
enough to get into the best schools.
We take for granted a system where most students of all ranges of ability
go to the same high school without having to pass a tough examination.
Except for Hispanics, we now graduate nearly 90% of all other students at
the 12th grade. Where most other nations reserve college for a tiny
60% of American students will actually start college immediately after
graduation. Over one-quarter will complete 4 years, among the highest
in the world. That's far ahead of either Germany or Japan, especially for
While 70% of Germans exit at grade 10 into apprenticeships, tightening
bolts for Volkswagen at half wage, well over half of our children are
preparing for college. American "School To Work" legislation is
transforming what is a work-track institution in other nations into
something to be required of "all" students. Even the college bound will
required to nominate a vocational field, take days out of the week at a
site walking the floors at the local Saturn dealership or installing air
conditioners to give education "a context" before they get their diploma.
All of this talk about "world class" ignores that it is the United States
that has risen to be the world's only superpower. It is America that
dominates all areas of technology, politics, economics, military, and
culture. It companies like Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Boeing and even Ford
GM that utterly dominate their world markets and set world standards.
Few realize the extent that America has already bought into Marc Tucker's
plan for the 21st Century. But in reality, it revives essay tests from a
century ago, emulates a school-to-work system which dates from the Middle
Ages, it penalizes the disadvantaged, and seeks to "catch up" with
competitors who can't hold a candle to our economy.
http://www.leconsulting.com/arthurhu/index/ edreform.htm for a complete
guide to education reform / deform and testing.
Contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by The Heritage Foundation
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The Gold Star State
By Tyce Palmaffy
How Texas jumped to the head of the class
in elementary school achievement
If funding and demography were vital to educational performance, then
would likely have one of the worst public-school systems in the
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
state’s schoolchildren qualify for federal education aid to
students under the Title I program, and among the states Texas has
fourth-highest percentage of school-age children living in poverty.
half the state’s public-school students are black or Hispanic,
groups that historically have done poorly on national achievement
Yet within the past few years, Texas has become one of the
highest-performing states in the nation. Consider a few telling
Among the 39 states that participated in the 1996 National
Educational Progress (NAEP) in fourth-grade math, Texas
the top 10, right alongside states such as Maine, North Dakota,
Wisconsin, which have far fewer low-income and minority students.
The state’s black fourth-graders and Title I fourth-graders
higher in math, on average, than their counterparts in every
state, and its Hispanic children finished sixth.
White fourth-graders in Texas had the highest average math score
Between 1992 and 1996, the percentage of Texas fourth-graders
at or above the NAEP’s "proficient" level in math rose from 15 to
percent, far outstripping improvements nationwide. Similarly, the
of Texas children scoring below the "basic" level (the lowest
the NAEP) fell from 44 percent to 31 percent during the same
Like every other state, Texas still has a broad racial chasm: In
fourth-grade math, 53 percent of blacks and 45 percent of
scored below the "basic" level, compared with 15 percent of
the gap is narrowing faster there than in any other state.
Texas achieved this remarkable turnaround by applying a simple lesson
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,
established nationally recognized achievement standards as well as
measure whether students had met them. In 1993, with these
an accountability system—standards, testing, and autonomy—in place,
state education department (known as the Texas Education Agency, or
began rating schools based on test scores and other factors. The
combines deregulation for schools and high expectations for students
races and income levels.
"Texas is paying deliberate attention to the fact that you can’t
group behind," says Kati Haycock, the executive director of the
Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to improving
educational opportunities for low-income children. "That sends a
message to educators that they have to make their system work for all
In Texas, we hear far fewer excuses, like having a lot of minority
than we do in places like California."
A "Consumer Reports" for Schools
The yardstick for the TEA’s ratings is the Texas Assessment of
Skills (TAAS), a series of yearly tests in reading, writing, and math
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
attendance rates, each school in the state is labeled "exemplary,"
"recognized," "acceptable," or "low performing." Schools may exempt
TAAS students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or special-
needs, but no other allowances are made for a school’s socioeconomic
Texas has the usual set of rewards and sanctions tied to a school’s
from small cash awards for high ratings to wholesale layoffs at the
worst schools. But the accountability system’s real power rests
ratings themselves. By spotlighting the performance of individual
and districts, the ratings affect the career prospects of all
from teachers to superintendents. For instance, principals at
"low-performing" schools have experienced a turnover of 31 percent
the past four years. By contrast, principals who have transformed
already find themselves receiving promotions to middle and high
This provides strong incentives to deliver results, and thus far they
been spectacular. In 1994, the TEA bestowed its top two rankings,
"exemplary" and "recognized," on 67 and 516 schools, respectively.
year, those numbers catapulted to 683 "exemplary" and 1,617
Meanwhile, the number of schools receiving the TEA’s lowest ranking
from 267 to 67, of which only a few were repeat offenders.
In 1994, barely half of all Texas students passed the TAAS math exam.
last year, the proportion had climbed to 80 percent. What’s more, the
of black and Hispanic children who passed the test doubled during
to 64 percent and 72 percent, respectively.
On the TAAS reading test, 70 percent of students were already passing
test in 1994. This included, however, only 51 percent of blacks and
percent of Hispanics. By 1997, 84 percent of Texas students had
including 73 percent of blacks and 75 percent of Hispanics.
These figures must be interpreted with care, since some schools might
hiding poor students by placing them in special-education classes or
encouraging them to stay home on the day of the test. But the
children exempted from the TAAS for limited English proficiency or
ed has not increased since 1993. The standards for each rating,
have actually risen over time, and the TAAS has not been made any
Moreover, Texas’s rising NAEP scores confirm that the gains are
"Their system is a real model for other states to follow," says
The Emerging Movement
Texas is the vanguard of an accountability movement sweeping the
Earlier this decade, Kentucky began to measure students’ progress by
rise in their test scores each year. Schools whose scores on the
tests rise more than expected receive financial rewards, while those
performance declines receive assistance in the form of instructional
specialists and extra resources. Kentucky also publishes the
children scoring at each of four performance levels: "novice,"
"proficient," and "distinguished."
So far the results have been promising: Statewide, the percentage of
elementary schoolchildren scoring at the "proficient" level rose from
percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 1997. Tennessee has a similar
North Carolina recently created an accountability system modeled on
More broadly, every state except Iowa either has a set of standards
is to be taught in each grade or is in the process of developing
others, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Maryland, Louisiana,
Indiana also have created or are creating assessments that test
knowledge of academic standards. States such as Alabama, New York,
Florida use such tests to compile and publish lists of low-performing
schools in the hope that dishonor will spark improvement.
A growing number of states, including New Jersey, Georgia, Michigan,
York, also provide access over the Internet to performance "report
for every school and school district in the state. These reports list
information ranging from per-pupil spending to student test scores.
of these states translate these report cards into easy-to-understand
performance ratings like those of Texas and Kentucky, but simply
scores readily available to parents and policymakers is a step
Educators used to understand "accountability" to mean a focus on how
students were educated. State regulators handed schools guidelines
methods, such as how much time to spend on each subject or what
purchase, rather than results. In practice, this usually meant that
bad schools alike passed inspection. (Under Virginia’s former
system, not one school ever lost its accreditation.)
The emerging accountability movement reflects the slow seepage of
principles into education. It recognizes that a prerequisite for
organization accountable, whether it be a Fortune 500 company or your
neighborhood school, is to have information about its performance.
why reform-minded state superintendents such as Linda Schrenko in
Lisa Keegan in Arizona, Frank Brogan in Florida, and Mike Moses in
insist on testing students and, at the least, publishing the results.
Business Takes Over
The old focus on teaching methods was "perfect" for educators, says
Winick, a founding member of the Texas Business and Education
(TBEC), an important player in Texas education reform. "It said that
do what we’re supposed to do, if we process correctly, and the kids
learn, it’s the kids’ fault. That meant that the problems were
societal, not instructional." That attitude was reflected in the
Education Code, which dictated such minutiae as the amount of teacher
training a school had to provide and the number of hours spent
In seeking to shed this antiquated system, Texas benefited from a
of circumstances. Early on, members of the state’s influential
community, concerned about the quality of Texas’s work force,
push for educational reform. Because Texas has four competing
unions and no trade organizations for principals or superintendents,
resistance was divided and weak. And the state’s largest teachers
Texas Federation of Teachers, actually joined businessmen in their
decade-long quest for accountability. "It’s important that we have
of telling the public that their education dollars are being spent
says John Cole, the TFT’s president.
Before the TAAS was developed in 1990, accountability in Texas took
of various minimum-skills tests and the famous "No Pass/No Play"
for extracurricular sanctions championed by billionaire Ross Perot.
districts were handcuffed by state regulations and student test
not used in any constructive fashion. To its credit, Texas was one of
first states to develop a system of education standards and
the business community and the public rightly criticized the minimum-
tests for being just that.
Led by Charles Duncan, an investment banker from Houston, TBEC in the
1980s pulled together powerful CEOs and educators interested in
Throughout the 1980s, in his role as head of TBEC and as an appointed
of the Texas school board, Duncan continued to jawbone educators into
focusing on student performance.
In the late 1980s, court rulings forced Texas to narrow the gap in
between wealthy and poor school districts. In the course of
finance system, lawmakers wanted to ensure that redistributed funds
spent well. Thus the legislature established the Educational Economic
Center, a quasi-governmental body charged with developing an
system. Chaired by Charles Miller, another Houston-based money
manager and a
founder of TBEC, the center presented its report in 1993. With strong
support from the Texas legislature, most of Miller’s recommendations
law, including the rating system and testing in most grades.
Many educators were not pleased about business meddling in their
One superintendent called the system "despicable." Nancy McClaran,
executive director of the Texas Association for Supervision and
Development, wrote in the Houston Chronicle that Miller’s report
"contradicts every major, reputable piece of research on student
that has been done in our nation in recent years. . . . If
recommendations would mean the dismantling of the public schools."
Despite such resistance, the Texas Education Code was rewritten in
further decentralize authority from the Texas Education Agency to
districts, giving schools even more autonomy to find solutions while
them accountable for the results.
"The new Code put a major emphasis on performance and deleted
telling districts how to teach," says Criss Cloudt, an associate
commissioner at the TEA. Unlike rating systems such as Kentucky’s
credit schools for simply making progress each year, Texas schools
reach a set of absolute benchmarks to improve their standing. In a
seeking an "exemplary" rating, for instance, 90 percent of the
pass the TAAS in reading, writing, and math, the dropout rate must
exceed 1 percent, and the attendance rate must surpass 94 percent. In
an "exemplary" school in the poverty-stricken barrios of El Paso must
the same standards as an "exemplary" school in the cozy Bellaire
The TEA is sensitive to a school’s socioeconomic or racial makeup,
to hold it equally responsible for the performance of its most
students. A school striving to earn a "recognized" ranking this year
achieve not only a TAAS passage rate of at least 80 percent of all
but at least 80 percent of each of three special racial and economic
subgroups as well. If any one subgroup, such as black students,
below 80 percent or fail one of the other measures, the school would
a lower ranking.
That’s why affluent Bellaire High School in Houston was labeled "low
performing" last year. Its overall scores were typical of a school
sends its top 50 students to the Ivy League, but its Hispanic dropout
was too high. Average scores at Royal Middle School in rural Pattison
good enough for an "acceptable" rating in 1996, but only 28 percent
black students had passed the TAAS math test. Because that fell below
percent cutoff for "acceptable" schools (which has since been
was also branded "low performing."
Royal Middle’s plight illustrates the slow pace of improvement at
schools. In the end, the "low performing" rating had its desired
Midway through the 1996-97 school year, the district replaced the
ineffective principal with Patsy Ann Parker, who initiated two-hour
afternoon tutoring sessions, cracked down on truancy by hauling
court, and began offering 7 a.m. breakfasts to lure struggling
before-school tutoring sessions. Her efforts earned the school an
"acceptable" rating in 1997.
The school, though, still occupies a precarious position between "low
performing" and "acceptable." According to Parker, parental
low, in part because the truck stops along Interstate 10 bring a
of drugs into the community. To encourage parents to care about
results, Parker requires teachers to call each student’s home once a
She is also using computer programs in reading and math to track
progress; from now on, 80 percent of the children who advance to the
grade must have skills at or above grade level. Where gang fights
routine at Royal, "now we have quiet halls and productive
Parker proudly says. She also brings drug-sniffing dogs into the
regularly. Still, Parker says, it will take three to five years to
If Royal is typical, Isaacs Elementary is extraordinary. One-hundred
of the school’s students qualify for Title I funds, yet they scored
than the statewide average on the TAAS in 1995, when Isaacs received
"acceptable" rating. Even so, principal Leon Pettis was determined to
scores. To him, "acceptable" was unacceptable.
He adopted the Saxon reading and math programs known widely for their
adherence to traditional methods such as phonics-based instruction.
began to monitor his teachers’ instructional habits by requiring them
give him portfolios of students’ work each week. Teachers in turn
expected to act on the feedback Pettis delivered. "He would tell the
teachers, ‘If your students aren’t performing, you as a teacher are
something,’ " says Fredye Hemanes, the school’s Title I coordinator.
required students who had failed or nearly failed the TAAS to attend
after-school tutoring sessions four days a week.
Two years later, 95 percent of the Isaacs kids who sat for the TAAS
reading, math, and writing passed all three tests, compared to just
percent in 1995 and 73 percent statewide. The reward came when Isaacs
named an elite "exemplary" school in 1997, a distinction it shared
10 percent of Texas schools.
The successes of school districts all over Texas yield many lessons
First, decentralization is critical. The TEA gave districts wide
in running their school systems. In turn, the most effective
have decentralized even further, allowing individual schools to make
curriculum and training decisions. "Site-based management" has become
new catch phrase in Texas education. Superintendents see the district
as less a regulatory overseer than as a source of instructional
information, and targeted spending. In Corpus Christi, where the
of kids passing the TAAS in reading rose from 66 percent in 1994 to
percent in 1997, superintendent Abelardo Saavedra managed the
tough district-wide standards and gave his schools broad freedoms to
"We expect all our schools to be on track towards ‘exemplary,’ " says
Saavedra, "and we look at the central office as their support system
opposed to the autocratic system we used to operate under."
The Houston school district, the largest in Texas, once mandated
instructional methods like "whole language." Now superintendent Rod
routinely grants exemptions to principals who believe that district
are hampering their efforts. Houston was also the first district in
permit public charter schools, which are liberated from most
return for meeting rigorous performance standards. "We have turned
schools loose," says Paige. "We tell them that they’re going to be
responsible for the pie, so we’re not going to give them the recipe."
Paige’s district boasted 25 "exemplary" schools in 1997, up from none
1993, when the standards were easier to meet.
Second, student testing, used properly, helps schools to identify
among students and teachers. One key to Houston’s resurgence has been
innovative use of the test data provided by the accountability
district office breaks apart the data to ensure that principals know
their schools, their students, and their individual teachers are
"We’re able with this kind of data to go back down to the classroom,
teacher," says Paige. "That makes the teacher’s performance visible.
be used to provide staff training and, in some cases, to make
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of test data in evaluating
and students. Teachers, says Saavedra, would like to improve but
know where their weaknesses lie. They often have no measure of their
students’ weaknesses either. Test scores provide the information they
"When we do poorly in reading, we know specifically what part of
we’re not doing well in," says Saavedra. "There’s no excuse for a
teacher not to be able to identify where she is weak. Scores should
guide the teacher."
Third, test data can also illuminate good practices. With schools’
and demographic makeup in hand, educators can identify high-
schools that are succeeding despite their obstacles. Without its TAAS
scores, how else would Texans be able to identify a gem like Isaacs?
shown," says Darvin Winick, now an advisor to Texas governor George
Bush’s business council, "that you can’t get credit for doing well
accountability." Then places like Isaacs become models for reform.
to Paige, more and more Houston schools are adopting programs such as
Instruction, Success for All, and Saxon reading and math because they
found that other successful schools are using them. "Schools are
find proven solutions because they’re accountable for the results,"
Sonny Donaldson, superintendent of the nearby Aldine district, sent a
of curriculum and instructional specialists to the North Forest and
Brazosport districts three years ago to divine their secrets. Both
are famous for educating children who live, like those in Aldine, on
troubled outskirts of Houston, and Donaldson wanted to find
would work for his students.
He found that these districts were closely analyzing individual
test scores in order to tailor instructional programs to their needs.
hired a consultant to write a computer program that would break down
district’s scores in a fashion helpful to teachers. He also sent
specialists to any school rated below "recognized" to work with
the field. With these reforms in place, 13 of the 26 schools that had
rated "acceptable" in 1995 rose to the "recognized" level in 1997.
district as a whole improved from "acceptable" to "recognized" in
years. "We set out to be a ‘recognized’ school district," says
"Now our goal is to be ‘exemplary.’ If 85 percent of a campus’s kids
passing the TAAS, and they set a goal of maintaining that, we reject
We want them to set more challenging goals."
Educators can use the test data to scour the state for proven
programs. At Stephens Elementary in Aldine, principal Ruth Dimmick
Success For All reading program developed at Johns Hopkins University
raise her school from "acceptable" in 1995 to "exemplary" in 1997—the
school in the district to do so. Don Hancock, the superintendent of
Connally school district near Waco, dispatched his math teachers to
the state for the best program and they returned with Saxon math in
a result, his district rose from "acceptable" in 1995 to "recognized"
1997. Taft High School near Corpus Christi brought in Saxon math in
shot from "low performing" to "recognized" in one year. These
spreading throughout Texas as educators search for what works.
Fourth, in the most troubled schools, principals say, parental
is indispensable to reform. The principal at Brandon Elementary, a
north of Houston that went from "low performing" in 1996 to
1997, now requires his teachers to call home whenever a student’s
performance falters. This is supposed to prompt parents to monitor
child’s study habits or at least, in the worst of cases, just make
their child comes to school regularly. Stephens Elementary in Aldine
parents of its mostly Hispanic student population free English
Hambrick Middle School in the same district offered parents gang-
workshops conducted by police officers, and exempts students from
if they bring their parents to school. Hambrick parents now volunteer
hours than parents at any other school in the district. Frazier
in Dallas, which jumped from a "low performing" rating in 1994 to
"exemplary" in 1997, gives away donated furniture, pots and pans, and
clothing to entice low-income parents to teacher conferences.
Lastly, the success of any reform depends on the deeply held
any child can learn, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
not accept low student performance or excuses that students can’t
says superintendent Gerald Anderson of the Brazosport school
have a basic philosophy in this district that if one teacher can do
all teachers can do it. The same goes for school campuses and
Houston’s Rod Paige adds, "We don’t accept the conventional wisdom
kids won’t be able to handle the content and that we should lower the
standards for them. There are schools in Houston loaded with low-
who perform. We believe that the school itself can make a
Texas is one of a handful of states fulfilling the model of an
accountability system for educators. Such a system, says researcher
Glidden of the American Federation of Teachers union (AFT), must have
A set of standards describing the knowledge and skills students are
to learn at each grade level. Teachers and principals in Texas know
they need to cover each year because the state gives them clear
The magazine Education Week and the AFT both gave Texas high marks
A set of tests that are closely aligned with the state’s standards.
way, the schools, the state, and the public know whether children are
learning the skills needed to succeed in each grade. "Norm-
such as the Stanford Achievement Test only measure where their
relative to all the students who take the test. "Criterion-
such as the TAAS and the NAEP tell them how much knowledge a student
acquired. The TAAS is easier than the NAEP, but it is much tougher
A system of rewards and sanctions for schools and students based on
test scores and other criteria such as dropout rates. Sanctions in
include the shame of a "low-performing" rating and the public hearing
accompanies it, the threat of a state takeover, and, for students who
pass the 10th-grade TAAS exam, failure to graduate high school. But
are merely stopgap measures, used only when the state is confronted
massive failure. For the average school or district, the
in which educators base their promotion decisions on performance have
more influence over achievement.
A system of aid to failing schools. Without extra help, says Chris
senior fellow at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States,
a "low performing" rating would be like "giving an ‘F’ in an algebra
and saying the student is going to improve because he got an ‘F’."
schools could use the instructional expertise of top-flight teachers
as an infusion of funds to purchase textbooks or to give teachers
bonuses. Last fall, TEA commissioner Mike Moses visited the Dallas
district to scold the school board for public infighting. The
turn, provided $25,000 and a team of specialists to each of its two
Standards and tests are clearly an important piece in the
puzzle, but what is most important—and what is lost in the debate
national testing—is what you do with the results. Key to Texas’s
how public and how understandable the ratings are. The TEA holds an
press conference to announce the rankings, after which big-city
such as the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News
(http://www.dallasnews.com/) splash the names of "low performing" and
"exemplary" schools across their front pages. In addition, every
ranking and vital statistics are readily available on the Internet, a
tool in the accountability movement.
"We’re finding more and more that when people come from other cities
states, they’ve already done a lot of legwork over the Internet,"
Craig, a real-estate agent in San Antonio. Homeowners and businessmen
keener interest in the local schools when their quality affects
Subterfuge and Solutions
Texas’s system is by no means perfect. For one thing, the benchmark
earning an "acceptable" rating is still rather low. In fact, just
ago a school could see 80 percent of its students fail the TAAS and
avoid the "low performing" stigma. But the threshold to qualify as
"acceptable" rises each year by 5 percentage points. By the year
school will need a TAAS passage rate of 50 percent to earn an
rating. "The standards aren’t where we want them to be," says Chris
of the TEA. "But that’s a pretty fast pace to be increasing them."
standard for a "recognized" rating has also ratcheted up, from 60
1994 to 80 percent this year.
Another major weakness in the system is the loophole that overlooks
performance of special-ed and LEP students. The TEA already reports
scores of Hispanic students who take the TAAS in Spanish, and those
will soon influence the rankings. A test for special-ed students is
works. "There’s a dual emphasis on raising standards and including
maximum number of students," says Cloudt of the TEA.
A more troubling issue is the sheer number of children labeled
education and LEP in the first place. Statewide, 10 percent of
exempted from the TAAS, and another 6 percent or so take the test,
not included in the rating system because of their special-ed status.
some schools, those numbers are alarmingly higher. In 1997, the
school district only used the test scores of 39 percent of Brock
students in determining the school’s accountability rating because
school had labeled 40 percent of its students special ed and another
percent LEP. "The number of kids who are special ed ought to be 5
max," says John Cole of the TFT union. Superintendent Thomas Tocco of
Fort Worth school district recently ordered an investigation of its
special-education programs after discovering that one-third of all
Worth elementary schools had exempted at least 20 percent of their
What is happening here is a cloudy and controversial issue. Some
claim that principals are finding ways to hide struggling students
the accountability system carries such high stakes. "We told
if they didn’t make the exemptions very tight, schools would test
kids who do well," says Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston
Federation of Teachers, the largest local arm of the TFT. "And that’s
precisely what happened." Houston superintendent Rod Paige denies
charges, saying that schools have strict guidelines for placing
into special education classes. Just last year, the TEA set up a
unit to investigate such claims.
Equally important is the question of how often students should be
Many teachers say the state tests students too often, and some say
spending too much time teaching to the test, but others disagree. "If
sure you have a strong link between the curriculum and the test, then
testing what you want the children to learn," says Cloudt of the TEA.
there is strong support among business leaders and policy analysts
expanding testing to the first and second grades and to grades nine
11. "When you last test kids at the 10th-grade level, you have not
whether they are qualified to move past high school," says John
executive director of TBEC.
Stevens’s point is punctuated by the prevalence of high schools among
ranks of the "low performing." While many elementary-school pupils,
their fresh minds and pre-adolescent innocence, have little trouble
to a higher rating, high schools and, to a lesser degree, middle
have proven more intransigent.
The story that unfolded at Fox Technical High School in San Antonio
illustrates the difficulty. After two straight years as a "low-
school, in 1995 auditors from the TEA deemed the problems plaguing
Technical High School too intractable for minor tinkering. Citing
among the staff and low morale, the team of auditors recommended a
measure called "reconstitution"—essentially, starting from scratch. A
principal with a reputation for reform was brought in and the entire
had to reapply to the school. Every principal’s dream became a
Joanne Cockrell: She was able to hand-pick her entire staff, only a
whom were holdovers from the prereconstitution days. "We thought that
ludicrous to keep the same teachers and expect different results,"
Two years later, Cockrell unexpectedly found herself having to
TEA commissioner Mike Moses why the results had hardly improved.
higher reading scores and a declining dropout rate, in 1997 Fox Tech
saddled with the "low-performing" stigma for the fourth straight year
because the proportion of its students passing the TAAS in math
below 35 percent, the benchmark for an "acceptable" rating. The
were strong enough to justify some faith in Cockrell and her staff,
TEA’s monitoring of Fox Tech continues.
The Coming Years
The Texas accountability system must continue to prove itself. The
eighth-graders on the 1996 NAEP math tests were not as impressive as
of fourth-graders, perhaps because they had already received five
Texas schooling by the time reforms began in 1993. It will be
see what happens in the coming years, as kids who began their
during the reform era start to enter middle school. (Likewise, the
of reforms would not have shown up on the last NAEP reading
1994. On that assessment, Texas’s fourth-graders performed at the
In the meantime, the reforms continue to spark some opposition. In
the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed
against the TAAS. The suit charges that the TAAS’s 10th-grade test,
students must pass to graduate, discriminates against minorities.
accords with MALDEF’s long history of opposition to student testing
general and to testing as a graduation requirement in particular.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education ruled against a similar
complaint filed by the NAACP last summer, and few observers expect
outcome to change.
These groups are finding themselves on the wrong side of public
Texas, even among educators. "Now the system is just a part of
Catherine Clark, director of the Texas Center for Educational
"It’s not a subject of debate." Of the educators I have spoken with,
ones who did criticize the system argued that it wasn’t tough enough.
Meanwhile, reforms continue apace. Governor Bush has proposed ending
promotion—the practice of graduating children to the next grade
of their skill level—statewide, and Rod Paige is in the process of
a plan for his district. A nascent program, the Public Education
allows students to leave any school receiving a "low-performing"
within the past three years as long as another school or district
them. Texas lawmakers are looking to provide incentives for districts
open their doors.
While many educational reform efforts quickly buckle to union
public discontent, Texas’s system has only become more rigorous over
If this trend continues, Texas, one of the nation’s poorest states,
become the best place to get an education.
Tyce Palmaffy is the assistant editor of Policy Review: The
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