Accountability

Test-Score Gains in Texas Traced to Policies on Minority Progress

By Bess Keller — April 25, 2001 3 min read
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Leveraged by “a unique mix of pragmatism and optimism” in its approach to reform, Texas has made impressive gains in student achievement over the past decade and earned a place as a national model, a report released last week says.

The report, commissioned by the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate leaders based in Washington, says that the gains have been particularly striking for low-income and minority students and have not come at the cost of higher dropout rates.

For More Information

“Real Results, Remaining Challenges: The Story of Texas Education Reform” is available from the Business Roundtable.

The Business Roundtable commissioned the report from the Education Trust, an independent, Washington-based group that promotes higher academic achievement for poor and minority students. Last week, the chairman of the roundtable’s education task force hailed the study for what he argued is its message to the nation as Congress considers education legislation that supporters say would increase accountability for student performance.

“Texas shows us what can happen,” said Edward B. Rust Jr., the chief executive officer of the State Farm Insurance Cos. He urged Congress to pass a measure, proposed by President Bush, that would require states to give annual tests linked to their standards in reading and mathematics in grades 3- 8.

“There are real lessons to be learned from the Texas approach to standards and accountability,” said Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust and a former senior editor of Education Week, who wrote the report. Texas has built a system that promotes equity—narrowing the gap between minority and white student achievement, for instance—while increasing achievement for all students as a group over time, he argued.

The report attempts to summarize knowledge about the effects of more than a decade of education policy decisions in the Lone Star State. While it cites several continuing problems in the state’s education system, it comes down firmly on the side of researchers who have found significant progress in student achievement, rather than those who assert that the state’s apparent gains amount to more of a “mirage” than a “miracle.” (“Testing System in Texas Yet To Get Final Grade,” May 31, 2000.)

Pragmatism Cited

According to the report, achievement gains in Texas cannot be explained by narrow preparation of students for taking state tests. If that were the case, Mr. Jerald contends, it would show up in a lack of improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which uses a sample of students from across the nation and does not relate directly to Texas’ academic standards.

Mr. Jerald finds two features of the Texas accountability system particularly noteworthy. It has been optimistic, he says, in expecting all groups of students to meet achievement benchmarks, and holding schools accountable for their progress against the same overall standard. And it has been pragmatic in setting that standard within reach but raising it slowly and predictably over time, he argues.

He points out that until very recently, Texas was the only state to report test scores separately by income and racial or ethnic group—and to insist that the same test-score target be met by each group.

Those policies bore fruit, according to the study. “There’s no way that Texas ends up having the highest average scores for African-American students of any state in two subjects by accident,” Mr. Jerald said, referring to 1996 math and 1998 writing results on the national assessment.

“And it’s not happening because of an increased dropout rate,” he added.

According to the report, the state’s high school graduation rate—as measured by comparing the number of high school graduates against the number of 8th graders four years earlier—increased between 1993, the year in which the accountability system was fully introduced, and 1999, the most recent year for which data were available. Nationally, that rate declined over the same period, the report says.

Walter M. Haney, an education professor at Boston College who has studied Texas education, disagrees wholeheartedly with the report’s conclusions on dropouts.

“I think what has happened is that the ‘whips and chains’ accountability pressure on the schools to show increased test scores has led them to push out students,” he said. His own analysis has shown that the percentage of black and Hispanic 6th graders who make it to 12th grade declined from around 80 percent in the 1980s to about 70 percent in 1999.

“The Texas model of reform is not one anyone should seek to emulate,” Mr. Haney argued.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Test-Score Gains in Texas Traced to Policies on Minority Progress

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