In a Texas District, Test Scores For Minority Students Have Soared
Five years ago, the passing rates on state tests for students in this sprawling working-class suburb of Houston were separated by chasms of 30 points or more. Whites were at the top. Black and Hispanic students were at the bottom.
Today, those lines are converging on a point at which many black, Hispanic, and white students perform at or near the same academic levels—a rare occurrence in U.S. education. That goal has been reached in some Aldine schools, where black and Hispanic students outperform white peers statewide.
Overall, the most recent tests in grades 3-8 and 10 put Aldine's African-American students 14 points behind the district's whites, and its Hispanics at 11 points back. That's still a big gap, but the disparities are smaller than they are statewide, and Aldine's gaps in the early grades are mostly in the single digits.
Because of those trends, which are stubbornly elusive nationwide, the 50,000-student school system was picked in two separate studies by Texas researchers as being among the best districts in the state for educating black and Hispanic students. It is also the largest district to make the cut in both studies.
"The cultural value in Aldine has shifted so the achievement gaps between kids by ethnicity are not OK," said Linda Skrla, an assistant professor of education administration at Texas A&M University, who took part in the research. "They have stopped accepting excuses for differential achievement."
It hasn't always been that way, acknowledged Nadine Kujawa, the deputy superintendent for instruction here. Six years ago, when the state's new accountability system began to factor minority test scores and attendance rates into highly publicized school ratings, Aldine was forced to take a closer look at itself.
"We really tried to come to grips as a district with the philosophy that all children can learn," Ms. Kujawa said. "You would hear that, but we had to decide if we really believed it, or if we were paying lip service to it."
Charting a Course
One researcher noted that Aldine is striking because the district leaves so little to chance when it comes to student success.
Half of Aldine's 2,400 kindergartners attend district-run preschools that focus on English and oral language skills. And the district has separate schools for its 9th graders—a grade that many experts say is a crucial one.
Assessment and intervention are routine districtwide. "If a student isn't working out with a teacher, we change them," one principal said.
While principals come up with their own curricular programs, they must draft improvement plans as soon as achievement begins to sag.
All those elements merge at Worsham Elementary School. Here, for example, rookie teachers spend 90 minutes a day, four days a week, in after-school training during their first semesters on the job.
"If we don't do that, they flounder longer," said Principal Holly Fisackerly. "Our job is to get them the best they can be as fast as possible."
Students are also pushed hard. At least two days a week, up to 230 of the school's 810 students attend after-school skills-development courses, which run from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Extra bus service is provided.
Martin Cortes says that such efforts are worth it. He tells his 3rd graders that they will never get A's from him and then score dismal marks on standardized tests—which he says happened to him when he was a high school student in Houston. "I felt dumb. I knew I was falling behind," recalled Mr. Cortes, who is Hispanic. "They had no expectations for me. That's why I teach in a minority district. That's what drives me."
The push seems to be working.
Worsham Elementary's enrollment is 86 percent Hispanic and 88 percent economically disadvantaged; half the students come to school with limited English skills. Nationally, that is a recipe for low achievement.
Last year, though, 98 percent of Worsham's Hispanic 3rd and 4th graders passed the reading part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, beating the statewide averages for whites in those grades of 97 percent and 94 percent, respectively. The state passing rate for Hispanic 3rd and 4th graders was 84 percent.
The 222 blacks and 712 Hispanics at nearby Hambrick Middle School also post higher TAAS passing rates than their white peers statewide. The school began to improve four years ago when Principal Nancy Blackwell transferred from a local elementary school. She made discipline a priority, paving the way for instructional changes.
Math teacher Demetra Skinner joined Hambrick in 1995 after earning a degree in mechanical engineering. At the time, 37 percent of the school's black students passed the TAAS. In 1998-99, 97 percent of the African-American students passed in math. Ms. Skinner attributes the rise to the fact that students now get 94 minutes of math daily. "They might not all be gods in math, but there's something they can do," she said. "When I see those gaps, my heart goes out to the kids. They're our future. I wonder what's going wrong."
Throughout the Aldine district, administrators are trying to respond to parents.
When parents asked the school board to spend money on schools for 9th graders rather than on new high schools, the district built the four 9th grade centers.
Some freshmen worry that the centers are too regimented—students must proceed in lines through the halls, for example—and deny them the freedom they need to prepare for high school. Supporters like the idea of having 9th graders, whose dropout rates are the highest in most schools, spend another year without the distractions of large high schools.
Two of the schools are new this year. Two are in their second year. While it's too early for trend data, early numbers show that fewer 9th graders are getting pregnant, and that the dropout rate is declining.
Another of Aldine's novelties is Anderson Academy. Located in a mostly low-income, African- American area of the district, the popular fine-arts magnet school serves 607 children in grades 1-3.
Under a federal desegregation order in place since 1978, Aldine must meet a court's mandates to prevent racial isolation in its schools. To attract Hispanics and whites, Anderson Academy offers ballet, violin, tap dancing, and other arts-related classes, and what educators there say is an aggressive approach toward keeping students on track.
"When we see Susie struggling, big caution lights flash,'' said Principal W.C. Wilson. "We meet with parents, put together a plan, and get the grade going in the other direction." About 75 students receive tutoring in the morning before school.
"It may seem extreme, but if someone can't read, nothing is too extreme," Ms. Wilson added. "If they can't read by 3rd grade, things are really going bad."
It takes little time for a visitor to Aldine to see the heavy emphasis that is placed on preparation for state tests.
Computer programs scroll through lists of practice questions. Printers spit out scores for teachers to review. Timed practice quizzes help students prepare for the real thing.
"Teachers are also starting to complain that it's too much," school board member Emmett Hill said.
Wanda Bamberg, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Aldine, agreed that schools can spend too much time preparing for tests. But, she said, it would be morally wrong not to give students the help they need to pass the high-stakes exams.
Ms. Kujawa, the deputy superintendent, said there's a reason why the district urges students to score beyond passing levels on the state tests. Just one year into their push to improve, TAAS pass rates shot up, she noted. Unfortunately, separate exams of grade-level work were flat. Today, the district's goal is 15 points higher than the passing mark, which is considered at or near grade level.
"We received great accolades, but the grade level didn't move. We started to focus on grade-level skills," Ms. Kujawa said. "Now when kids don't achieve, we sit down and ask principals what happened. 'Why did that happen? What is your plan?'"
Vol. 19, Issue 30, Pages 14-15