Tex. Politicians Wrangle Over School Rankings

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Annual school-performance rankings have taken center stage in the Texas political arena over the past month, as the leading candidates for governor bicker over how good the state's schools really are.

The August news that scores of schools had lifted their performance levels has been the subject of hot debate. As state school officials have congratulated administrators, teachers, and students for hard work, George W. Bush, the Republican candidate for governor, has been crying foul.

The fall ranking of the more than 6,000 public schools in Texas found that the number considered low-performing had dropped from 326 last year to 55 this year. The number of "exemplary" schools jumped from 22 to 64, while the number of "recognized" schools nearly doubled, to 504.

Mr. Bush charged that lower standards helped raise the scores--making it appear that schools had vastly improved under Gov. Ann W. Richards, a Democrat who is seeking a second term.

He called the report by the Texas Education Agency "insulting to students, teachers, and parents."

Ms. Richards took exception.

"This whole deal, whether our kids are achieving or not, isn't a political question," the Governor said. "The question is, are we moving ahead? Are our kids doing better than last year? Are our kids doing better than they did the year before? And the answer is yes."

Yet as the debate continues, scrutiny of the performance rankings has lent some credence to each point of view.

'Growing Pains'

Commissioner of Education Lionel Meno initially noted that under the 1993 criteria, about five more schools would have been classified as low-performing. Yet another analysis of the new standards found that the number of schools in that position was closer to 150.

Last year was the first year the state released school-by-school rankings, and the T.E.A. had just two months to implement the system. After releasing the first-year scores, officials began consulting with state and district leaders in an effort to refine the process.

As a result, the state increased the number of student test scores that would be factored into the decision, judging schools based on students' scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in grades 3-8 as well as grade 10. Previously, only students in grades 4, 8, and 10 were counted.

Further, the state considered student performance on individual portions of the test and not just on the composite score. Under last year's requirements, schools were considered "acceptable" if 20 percent of students passed all portions of the TAAS. This year, the "acceptable" category required that 25 percent of a school's students pass each portion of the exam.

The rankings also take into account other factors like dropout rates, attendance, and school size.

State officials attributed the changes to the performance system's natural "growing pains."

Indeed, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee said he did not see any political games being played by Mr. Meno or T.E.A. officials.

And school officials said that, for the most part, the schools ranked at the top and the bottom of the list brought no real surprises.

Yet such reasoning has left the issue far from settled as Mr. Bush and Ms. Richards begin the home stretch of their campaigns.

"I didn't have anything to do with the fact that the kids did better," Ms. Richards said at one campaign stop. "We're real pleased to see that finally education in Texas is headed in the right direction."

'Playing Politics'

Mr. Bush, however, has continued to argue that the state is lowering its expectations.

"They are playing politics with the school children of Texas," an aide to Mr. Bush said. "They are saying that failure is acceptable in our Texas public schools. George Bush believes it's unacceptable, and it's time to change the governor and those in charge of our education system in Texas."

As the issue has lingered, tension between the campaigns has begun to show in the exchange.

"It is unfortunate that George W. Bush wants to dispute and distort the one undeniable fact, and that is that test scores in Texas have improved," said an aide to Ms. Richards, responding to another swipe from Mr. Bush, a businessman who is the oldest son of former President George Bush.

"Mr. Bush does not have a personal frame of reference to understand public schools in Texas," the aide continued. "He cannot compare his own high school experience at a prep school in Massachusetts to what a Texas kid sees in Houston, Dallas, El Paso, or any other part of this state."

With the start of the new school year, administrators are pleased to have something to focus on beyond the political rhetoric.

"I sense less confusion among school people than among the candidates running for office," said Dan Casey, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. "The concern among educators is over broader issues and the longer haul--things like how much we are going to focus on standardized test results alone."

Vol. 14, Issue 02

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