Waco Gets Tough With Summer School Effort
Summer vacation has finally arrived for nearly 2,000 students in Waco, Texas, who endured six weeks of summer school under the toughest retention policy in the Lone Star State.
Last summer, the Waco school board declared that 1st through 8th graders who failed standardized tests would not advance to the next grade. Instead, such students would have to attend a month and a half of summer school and then be retested. The new practice was launched this summer.
Now, despite a lawsuit brought by a group of local parents seeking to end the effort, state officials are looking to Waco as a pilot project on scrapping so-called social promotion. In fact, the policy in the working-class city in east-central Texas has drawn praise from Republican Gov. George W. Bush, who has pledged to end such promotions statewide if he is re-elected this fall.
"Ending social promotion is one of Governor Bush's top priorities," said Debbi Head, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush. "He agrees with Waco's goal and supports it."
But raising the bar in the 16,000-student Waco district won't be cheap.
After spring tests, 20 percent of Waco's 1st through 8th graders faced retention, prompting a record summer school enrollment that carried with it a $1 million price tag.
Michele Ryan, the president of the Waco Council of PTAs, believes it is money well spent. "It's a good first step," she said. "The more we expect from children, the more they're going to put forth."
Waco's stricter policy began with a 1996 district study that found a high rate of students who passed their classes but failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, a state exam given in grades 3-8 and grade 10.
Waco's passing rates on the 1995 TAAS were 58.7 percent in reading and 42 percent in math--more than 20 percentage points below the state average in each category.
"We found there was very little correlation between report card grades and TAAS scores," district Superintendent Rosanne Stripling said. "This became the platform for pursuing a new policy."
The district has addressed the discrepancy by more closely aligning curriculum with state learning standards. And, in teacher evaluations, principals are comparing student grades with TAAS scores.
Today, the higher stakes the district has attached to the state exam are being credited with improving scores on the most recent TAAS this spring.
Waco students raised their reading and math scores 10 percentage points over last year's; the state average went up 3 percentage points. The performance of the district's black students shot up 16.6 percentage points, while the average score for black youngsters statewide rose by 6 percentage points.
To help the students who didn't reach threshold scores, the district hired 154 teachers for summer programs on 18 campuses.
Waco regularly has summer school for students who fail to meet grade and attendance marks for promotion. But this year's program is larger and more focused.
In addition to holding the size of summer classes to a maximum of 16 students, the district sought out strong reading and math teachers and raised their hourly pay from $14 last year to $18.
"We encouraged principals to be very selective," Ms. Stripling said. "No matter how wonderful a program is, success depends on who administers it."
In addition to a curriculum tailored to their weaknesses, the students received tips on strategy for last week's makeup tests, the results of which will be ready this month.
Students who fail again will be placed in classes this fall designed to get them up to grade level as soon as possible.
"There's a certain amount of anxiety," said Eileen Lytle, the director of the district's extended-year program. "That's why teachers are trying to work on confidence and letting students know that they can do this."
But the new retention strategy has riled some people.
McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson is leading a small group of minority parents who oppose the program. In a recent lawsuit, they say that the TAAS was not designed to determine student promotion.
Moreover, identifying students to be held back based on the exam violates TAAS confidentiality laws, the suit contends. A hearing in the case has been set for Aug. 10 in state district court.
Mr. Gibson, who has one son in a district school, supports a broader approach to ending promotions of students who are not academically ready for the next grade .
"Low performance on the TAAS is a direct reflection on the administration, but they're making students look like criminals and not victims," he said. "If they're basing retention on one test in one year, that's wrong."
Ms. Stripling said such arguments are groundless. The policy, she added, seeks to make parents and their children more responsible for student learning.
Besides, Texas already requires students to pass an exit exam, first given in the 10th grade, to graduate from high school, she said.
She compared her district's use of tests to fishing: "You can have line and a hook, but if there's no bait, the fish won't grab it. This is the bait."
Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 3