Policy Review Banner

The Gold Star State

Sunday, March 1, 1998

How Texas jumped to the head of the class
in elementary school achievement

If funding and demography were vital to educational performance, then Texas would likely have one of the worst public-school systems in the nation. 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 the state’s schoolchildren qualify for federal education aid to disadvantaged students under the Title I program, and among the states Texas has the fourth-highest percentage of school-age children living in poverty. Nearly half the state’s public-school students are black or Hispanic, minority groups that historically have done poorly on national achievement tests.

Yet within the past few years, Texas has become one of the highest-performing states in the nation. Consider a few telling statistics:

  • Among the 39 states that participated in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)   in fourth-grade math, Texas finished in the top 10, right alongside states such as Maine, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, which have far fewer low-income and minority students.

  • The state’s black fourth-graders and Title I fourth-graders scored higher in math, on average, than their counterparts in every other state, and its Hispanic children finished sixth.

  • White fourth-graders in Texas had the highest average math score in the nation.

  • Between 1992 and 1996, the percentage of Texas fourth-graders achieving at or above the NAEP’s "proficient" level in math rose from 15 to 25 percent, far outstripping improvements nationwide. Similarly, the share of Texas children scoring below the "basic" level (the lowest tier on the NAEP) fell from 44 percent to 31 percent during the same period.

  • Like every other state, Texas still has a broad racial chasm: In fourth-grade math, 53 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics scored below the "basic" level, compared with 15 percent of whites. But the gap is narrowing faster there than in any other state.

Texas achieved this remarkable turnaround by applying a simple lesson from 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, they established nationally recognized achievement standards as well as tests to measure whether students had met them. In 1993, with these cornerstones of an accountability system—standards, testing, and autonomy—in place, the state education department (known as the Texas Education Agency, or TEA) began rating schools based on test scores and other factors. The system combines deregulation for schools and high expectations for students of all races and income levels.

"Texas is paying deliberate attention to the fact that you can’t leave any group behind," says Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to improving educational opportunities for low-income children. "That sends a powerful message to educators that they have to make their system work for all kids. In Texas, we hear far fewer excuses, like having a lot of minority children, than we do in places like California."

A "Consumer Reports" for Schools

The yardstick for the TEA’s ratings is the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a series of yearly tests in reading, writing, and math given 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 dropout and attendance rates, each school in the state is labeled "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable," or "low performing." Schools may exempt from the TAAS students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or special-education needs, but no other allowances are made for a school’s socioeconomic or demographic circumstances.

Texas has the usual set of rewards and sanctions tied to a school’s results, from small cash awards for high ratings to wholesale layoffs at the state’s worst schools. But the accountability system’s real power rests within the ratings themselves. By spotlighting the performance of individual schools and districts, the ratings affect the career prospects of all educators, from teachers to superintendents. For instance, principals at "low-performing" schools have experienced a turnover of 31 percent during the past four years. By contrast, principals who have transformed schools already find themselves receiving promotions to middle and high schools.

This provides strong incentives to deliver results, and thus far they have been spectacular. In 1994, the TEA bestowed its top two rankings, "exemplary" and "recognized," on 67 and 516 schools, respectively. Last year, those numbers catapulted to 683 "exemplary" and 1,617 "recognized." Meanwhile, the number of schools receiving the TEA’s lowest ranking dropped 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. By last year, the proportion had climbed to 80 percent. What’s more, the share of black and Hispanic children who passed the test doubled during that time to 64 percent and 72 percent, respectively.

On the TAAS reading test, 70 percent of students were already passing the test in 1994. This included, however, only 51 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics. By 1997, 84 percent of Texas students had passed, including 73 percent of blacks and 75 percent of Hispanics.

These figures must be interpreted with care, since some schools might be hiding poor students by placing them in special-education classes or encouraging them to stay home on the day of the test. But the percentage of children exempted from the TAAS for limited English proficiency or special ed has not increased since 1993. The standards for each rating, meanwhile, have actually risen over time, and the TAAS has not been made any easier. Moreover, Texas’s rising NAEP scores confirm that the gains are genuine.

"Their system is a real model for other states to follow," says Haycock.

The Emerging Movement

Texas is the vanguard of an accountability movement sweeping the states. Earlier this decade, Kentucky began to measure students’ progress by the rise in their test scores each year. Schools whose scores on the state’s tests rise more than expected receive financial rewards, while those whose performance declines receive assistance in the form of instructional specialists and extra resources. Kentucky also publishes the percentage of children scoring at each of four performance levels: "novice," "apprentice," "proficient," and "distinguished."

So far the results have been promising: Statewide, the percentage of elementary schoolchildren scoring at the "proficient" level rose from 8 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 1997. Tennessee has a similar system, and North Carolina recently created an accountability system modeled on its neighbors’.

More broadly, every state except Iowa either has a set of standards for what is to be taught in each grade or is in the process of developing them. Among others, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Maryland, Louisiana, and Indiana also have created or are creating assessments that test students’ knowledge of academic standards. States such as Alabama, New York, and 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, and New York, also provide access over the Internet to performance "report cards" for every school and school district in the state. These reports list information ranging from per-pupil spending to student test scores. Very few of these states translate these report cards into easy-to-understand performance ratings like those of Texas and Kentucky, but simply having test scores readily available to parents and policymakers is a step towards accountability.

Educators used to understand "accountability" to mean a focus on how students were educated. State regulators handed schools guidelines for methods, such as how much time to spend on each subject or what curricula to purchase, rather than results. In practice, this usually meant that good and bad schools alike passed inspection. (Under Virginia’s former accrediting system, not one school ever lost its accreditation.)

The emerging accountability movement reflects the slow seepage of market principles into education. It recognizes that a prerequisite for holding any organization accountable, whether it be a Fortune 500 company or your neighborhood school, is to have information about its performance. That’s why reform-minded state superintendents such as Linda Schrenko in Georgia, Lisa Keegan in Arizona, Frank Brogan in Florida, and Mike Moses in Texas 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 Darvin Winick, a founding member of the Texas Business and Education Coalition (TBEC), an important player in Texas education reform. "It said that if we do what we’re supposed to do, if we process correctly, and the kids don’t learn, it’s the kids’ fault. That meant that the problems were communal and societal, not instructional." That attitude was reflected in the Texas Education Code, which dictated such minutiae as the amount of teacher training a school had to provide and the number of hours spent learning math each day.

In seeking to shed this antiquated system, Texas benefited from a unique set of circumstances. Early on, members of the state’s influential business community, concerned about the quality of Texas’s work force, organized to push for educational reform. Because Texas has four competing teachers unions and no trade organizations for principals or superintendents, any resistance was divided and weak. And the state’s largest teachers union, the Texas Federation of Teachers, actually joined businessmen in their decade-long quest for accountability. "It’s important that we have some way of telling the public that their education dollars are being spent well," says John Cole, the TFT’s president.

Before the TAAS was developed in 1990, accountability in Texas took the form of various minimum-skills tests and the famous "No Pass/No Play" provision for extracurricular sanctions championed by billionaire Ross Perot. School districts were handcuffed by state regulations and student test results were not used in any constructive fashion. To its credit, Texas was one of the first states to develop a system of education standards and assessments, but the business community and the public rightly criticized the minimum-skills tests for being just that.

Led by Charles Duncan, an investment banker from Houston, TBEC in the early 1980s pulled together powerful CEOs and educators interested in reform. Throughout the 1980s, in his role as head of TBEC and as an appointed member 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 funding between wealthy and poor school districts. In the course of overhauling the finance system, lawmakers wanted to ensure that redistributed funds would be spent well. Thus the legislature established the Educational Economic Policy Center, a quasi-governmental body charged with developing an accountability 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 became law, including the rating system and testing in most grades.

Many educators were not pleased about business meddling in their bailiwick. One superintendent called the system "despicable." Nancy McClaran, the executive director of the Texas Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, wrote in the Houston Chronicle that Miller’s report "contradicts every major, reputable piece of research on student testing that has been done in our nation in recent years. . . . If implemented, the recommendations would mean the dismantling of the public schools."

Despite such resistance, the Texas Education Code was rewritten in 1995 to further decentralize authority from the Texas Education Agency to local districts, giving schools even more autonomy to find solutions while holding them accountable for the results.

"The new Code put a major emphasis on performance and deleted references to telling districts how to teach," says Criss Cloudt, an associate commissioner at the TEA. Unlike rating systems such as Kentucky’s that credit schools for simply making progress each year, Texas schools must reach a set of absolute benchmarks to improve their standing. In a school seeking an "exemplary" rating, for instance, 90 percent of the students must pass the TAAS in reading, writing, and math, the dropout rate must not exceed 1 percent, and the attendance rate must surpass 94 percent. In short, an "exemplary" school in the poverty-stricken barrios of El Paso must meet the same standards as an "exemplary" school in the cozy Bellaire section of Houston.

The TEA is sensitive to a school’s socioeconomic or racial makeup, but only to hold it equally responsible for the performance of its most vulnerable students. A school striving to earn a "recognized" ranking this year must achieve not only a TAAS passage rate of at least 80 percent of all students, but at least 80 percent of each of three special racial and economic subgroups as well. If any one subgroup, such as black students, should fall below 80 percent or fail one of the other measures, the school would receive 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 that sends its top 50 students to the Ivy League, but its Hispanic dropout rate was too high. Average scores at Royal Middle School in rural Pattison were good enough for an "acceptable" rating in 1996, but only 28 percent of its black students had passed the TAAS math test. Because that fell below the 30 percent cutoff for "acceptable" schools (which has since been raised), Royal was also branded "low performing."

Royal Middle’s plight illustrates the slow pace of improvement at most schools. In the end, the "low performing" rating had its desired effect: 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 parents into court, and began offering 7 a.m. breakfasts to lure struggling students to 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 involvement is low, in part because the truck stops along Interstate 10 bring a steady flow of drugs into the community. To encourage parents to care about academic results, Parker requires teachers to call each student’s home once a week. She is also using computer programs in reading and math to track students’ progress; from now on, 80 percent of the children who advance to the next grade must have skills at or above grade level. Where gang fights once were routine at Royal, "now we have quiet halls and productive classrooms," Parker proudly says. She also brings drug-sniffing dogs into the school regularly. Still, Parker says, it will take three to five years to turn the school around.

If Royal is typical, Isaacs Elementary is extraordinary. One-hundred percent of the school’s students qualify for Title I funds, yet they scored higher than the statewide average on the TAAS in 1995, when Isaacs received an "acceptable" rating. Even so, principal Leon Pettis was determined to raise 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. He also began to monitor his teachers’ instructional habits by requiring them to give him portfolios of students’ work each week. Teachers in turn were expected to act on the feedback Pettis delivered. "He would tell the teachers, ‘If your students aren’t performing, you as a teacher are lacking something,’ " says Fredye Hemanes, the school’s Title I coordinator. He also 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 tests in reading, math, and writing passed all three tests, compared to just 66 percent in 1995 and 73 percent statewide. The reward came when Isaacs was named an elite "exemplary" school in 1997, a distinction it shared with just 10 percent of Texas schools.

The Lessons

The successes of school districts all over Texas yield many lessons about accountability:

First, decentralization is critical. The TEA gave districts wide discretion in running their school systems. In turn, the most effective superintendents have decentralized even further, allowing individual schools to make most curriculum and training decisions. "Site-based management" has become the new catch phrase in Texas education. Superintendents see the district office as less a regulatory overseer than as a source of instructional expertise, information, and targeted spending. In Corpus Christi, where the percentage of kids passing the TAAS in reading rose from 66 percent in 1994 to 82 percent in 1997, superintendent Abelardo Saavedra managed the creation of tough district-wide standards and gave his schools broad freedoms to meet them.

"We expect all our schools to be on track towards ‘exemplary,’ " says Saavedra, "and we look at the central office as their support system as 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 Paige routinely grants exemptions to principals who believe that district mandates are hampering their efforts. Houston was also the first district in Texas to permit public charter schools, which are liberated from most regulations in return for meeting rigorous performance standards. "We have turned the 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 in 1993, when the standards were easier to meet.

Second, student testing, used properly, helps schools to identify weaknesses among students and teachers. One key to Houston’s resurgence has been its innovative use of the test data provided by the accountability system. The district office breaks apart the data to ensure that principals know how their schools, their students, and their individual teachers are doing. "We’re able with this kind of data to go back down to the classroom, to the teacher," says Paige. "That makes the teacher’s performance visible. It can be used to provide staff training and, in some cases, to make changes."

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of test data in evaluating teachers and students. Teachers, says Saavedra, would like to improve but often don’t know where their weaknesses lie. They often have no measure of their students’ weaknesses either. Test scores provide the information they need. "When we do poorly in reading, we know specifically what part of reading we’re not doing well in," says Saavedra. "There’s no excuse for a classroom teacher not to be able to identify where she is weak. Scores should help guide the teacher."

Third, test data can also illuminate good practices. With schools’ scores and demographic makeup in hand, educators can identify high-performing schools that are succeeding despite their obstacles. Without its TAAS scores, how else would Texans be able to identify a gem like Isaacs? "We’ve shown," says Darvin Winick, now an advisor to Texas governor George W. Bush’s business council, "that you can’t get credit for doing well without accountability." Then places like Isaacs become models for reform. According to Paige, more and more Houston schools are adopting programs such as Direct Instruction, Success for All, and Saxon reading and math because they have found that other successful schools are using them. "Schools are trying to find proven solutions because they’re accountable for the results," says Paige.

Sonny Donaldson, superintendent of the nearby Aldine district, sent a team of curriculum and instructional specialists to the North Forest and Brazosport districts three years ago to divine their secrets. Both districts are famous for educating children who live, like those in Aldine, on the troubled outskirts of Houston, and Donaldson wanted to find strategies that would work for his students.

He found that these districts were closely analyzing individual students’ test scores in order to tailor instructional programs to their needs. So he hired a consultant to write a computer program that would break down his own district’s scores in a fashion helpful to teachers. He also sent curriculum specialists to any school rated below "recognized" to work with teachers in the field. With these reforms in place, 13 of the 26 schools that had been rated "acceptable" in 1995 rose to the "recognized" level in 1997. The district as a whole improved from "acceptable" to "recognized" in just two years. "We set out to be a ‘recognized’ school district," says Donaldson. "Now our goal is to be ‘exemplary.’ If 85 percent of a campus’s kids are passing the TAAS, and they set a goal of maintaining that, we reject that. We want them to set more challenging goals."

Educators can use the test data to scour the state for proven instructional programs. At Stephens Elementary in Aldine, principal Ruth Dimmick used the Success For All reading program developed at Johns Hopkins University to raise her school from "acceptable" in 1995 to "exemplary" in 1997—the only school in the district to do so. Don Hancock, the superintendent of the Connally school district near Waco, dispatched his math teachers to travel the state for the best program and they returned with Saxon math in hand. As a result, his district rose from "acceptable" in 1995 to "recognized" in 1997. Taft High School near Corpus Christi brought in Saxon math in 1996 and shot from "low performing" to "recognized" in one year. These programs are spreading throughout Texas as educators search for what works.

Fourth, in the most troubled schools, principals say, parental involvement is indispensable to reform. The principal at Brandon Elementary, a school north of Houston that went from "low performing" in 1996 to "acceptable" in 1997, now requires his teachers to call home whenever a student’s performance falters. This is supposed to prompt parents to monitor their child’s study habits or at least, in the worst of cases, just make sure their child comes to school regularly. Stephens Elementary in Aldine offers parents of its mostly Hispanic student population free English lessons. Hambrick Middle School in the same district offered parents gang-awareness workshops conducted by police officers, and exempts students from homework if they bring their parents to school. Hambrick parents now volunteer more hours than parents at any other school in the district. Frazier Elementary 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 conviction that any child can learn, even in the most challenging of circumstances. "I will not accept low student performance or excuses that students can’t learn," says superintendent Gerald Anderson of the Brazosport school district. "We have a basic philosophy in this district that if one teacher can do it, then all teachers can do it. The same goes for school campuses and districts." Houston’s Rod Paige adds, "We don’t accept the conventional wisdom that some 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-income kids who perform. We believe that the school itself can make a difference."

Building Accountability

Texas is one of a handful of states fulfilling the model of an accountability system for educators. Such a system, says researcher Heidi Glidden of the American Federation of Teachers union (AFT), must have four prongs:

 

A set of standards describing the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn at each grade level. Teachers and principals in Texas know what they need to cover each year because the state gives them clear guideposts. The magazine Education Week and the AFT both gave Texas high marks for its academic standards.

A set of tests that are closely aligned with the state’s standards. That way, the schools, the state, and the public know whether children are learning the skills needed to succeed in each grade. "Norm-referenced" tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test only measure where their students are relative to all the students who take the test. "Criterion-referenced" tests such as the TAAS and the NAEP tell them how much knowledge a student has acquired. The TAAS is easier than the NAEP, but it is much tougher than most states’ assessments.

A system of rewards and sanctions for schools and students based on student test scores and other criteria such as dropout rates. Sanctions in Texas include the shame of a "low-performing" rating and the public hearing that accompanies it, the threat of a state takeover, and, for students who don’t pass the 10th-grade TAAS exam, failure to graduate high school. But these are merely stopgap measures, used only when the state is confronted with massive failure. For the average school or district, the surreptitious ways in which educators base their promotion decisions on performance have much more influence over achievement.

A system of aid to failing schools. Without extra help, says Chris Pipho, a senior fellow at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, giving a "low performing" rating would be like "giving an ‘F’ in an algebra class and saying the student is going to improve because he got an ‘F’." Many schools could use the instructional expertise of top-flight teachers as well as an infusion of funds to purchase textbooks or to give teachers merit bonuses. Last fall, TEA commissioner Mike Moses visited the Dallas school district to scold the school board for public infighting. The district, in turn, provided $25,000 and a team of specialists to each of its two "low-performing" schools.

Standards and tests are clearly an important piece in the accountability puzzle, but what is most important—and what is lost in the debate over national testing—is what you do with the results. Key to Texas’s reforms is how public and how understandable the ratings are. The TEA holds an annual press conference to announce the rankings, after which big-city newspapers 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 school’s ranking and vital statistics are readily available on the Internet, a key tool in the accountability movement.

"We’re finding more and more that when people come from other cities and states, they’ve already done a lot of legwork over the Internet," says Diane Craig, a real-estate agent in San Antonio. Homeowners and businessmen take a keener interest in the local schools when their quality affects property values.

Subterfuge and Solutions

Texas’s system is by no means perfect. For one thing, the benchmark for earning an "acceptable" rating is still rather low. In fact, just four years ago a school could see 80 percent of its students fail the TAAS and still avoid the "low performing" stigma. But the threshold to qualify as "acceptable" rises each year by 5 percentage points. By the year 2000, a school will need a TAAS passage rate of 50 percent to earn an "acceptable" rating. "The standards aren’t where we want them to be," says Chris Cloudt of the TEA. "But that’s a pretty fast pace to be increasing them." The standard for a "recognized" rating has also ratcheted up, from 60 percent in 1994 to 80 percent this year.

Another major weakness in the system is the loophole that overlooks the performance of special-ed and LEP students. The TEA already reports the scores of Hispanic students who take the TAAS in Spanish, and those scores will soon influence the rankings. A test for special-ed students is in the works. "There’s a dual emphasis on raising standards and including the maximum number of students," says Cloudt of the TEA.

A more troubling issue is the sheer number of children labeled special education and LEP in the first place. Statewide, 10 percent of students are exempted from the TAAS, and another 6 percent or so take the test, yet are not included in the rating system because of their special-ed status. At some schools, those numbers are alarmingly higher. In 1997, the Houston school district only used the test scores of 39 percent of Brock Elementary students in determining the school’s accountability rating because the school had labeled 40 percent of its students special ed and another 18 percent LEP. "The number of kids who are special ed ought to be 5 percent, max," says John Cole of the TFT union. Superintendent Thomas Tocco of the Fort Worth school district recently ordered an investigation of its special-education programs after discovering that one-third of all Fort Worth elementary schools had exempted at least 20 percent of their kids for special ed.

What is happening here is a cloudy and controversial issue. Some observers claim that principals are finding ways to hide struggling students because the accountability system carries such high stakes. "We told lawmakers that if they didn’t make the exemptions very tight, schools would test only the 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 such charges, saying that schools have strict guidelines for placing children into special education classes. Just last year, the TEA set up a special unit to investigate such claims.

Equally important is the question of how often students should be tested. Many teachers say the state tests students too often, and some say they are spending too much time teaching to the test, but others disagree. "If you’re sure you have a strong link between the curriculum and the test, then you’re testing what you want the children to learn," says Cloudt of the TEA. And there is strong support among business leaders and policy analysts for expanding testing to the first and second grades and to grades nine through 11. "When you last test kids at the 10th-grade level, you have not told them whether they are qualified to move past high school," says John Stevens, the executive director of TBEC.

Stevens’s point is punctuated by the prevalence of high schools among the ranks of the "low performing." While many elementary-school pupils, with their fresh minds and pre-adolescent innocence, have little trouble climbing to a higher rating, high schools and, to a lesser degree, middle schools, 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-performing" school, in 1995 auditors from the TEA deemed the problems plaguing Fox Technical High School too intractable for minor tinkering. Citing divisions among the staff and low morale, the team of auditors recommended a rare measure called "reconstitution"—essentially, starting from scratch. A new principal with a reputation for reform was brought in and the entire staff had to reapply to the school. Every principal’s dream became a reality for Joanne Cockrell: She was able to hand-pick her entire staff, only a third of whom were holdovers from the prereconstitution days. "We thought that it be ludicrous to keep the same teachers and expect different results," says Cockrell.

Two years later, Cockrell unexpectedly found herself having to explain to TEA commissioner Mike Moses why the results had hardly improved. Despite higher reading scores and a declining dropout rate, in 1997 Fox Tech was saddled with the "low-performing" stigma for the fourth straight year because the proportion of its students passing the TAAS in math remained below 35 percent, the benchmark for an "acceptable" rating. The improvements were strong enough to justify some faith in Cockrell and her staff, but the TEA’s monitoring of Fox Tech continues.

The Coming Years

The Texas accountability system must continue to prove itself. The gains of eighth-graders on the 1996 NAEP math tests were not as impressive as those of fourth-graders, perhaps because they had already received five years of Texas schooling by the time reforms began in 1993. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years, as kids who began their schooling during the reform era start to enter middle school. (Likewise, the benefits of reforms would not have shown up on the last NAEP reading assessment in 1994. On that assessment, Texas’s fourth-graders performed at the national average.)

In the meantime, the reforms continue to spark some opposition. In October, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed suit against the TAAS. The suit charges that the TAAS’s 10th-grade test, which students must pass to graduate, discriminates against minorities. This accords with MALDEF’s long history of opposition to student testing in 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 the outcome to change.

These groups are finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion in Texas, even among educators. "Now the system is just a part of Texas," says Catherine Clark, director of the Texas Center for Educational Research. "It’s not a subject of debate." Of the educators I have spoken with, the ones who did criticize the system argued that it wasn’t tough enough.

Meanwhile, reforms continue apace. Governor Bush has proposed ending social promotion—the practice of graduating children to the next grade regardless of their skill level—statewide, and Rod Paige is in the process of drafting a plan for his district. A nascent program, the Public Education Grant, now allows students to leave any school receiving a "low-performing" rating within the past three years as long as another school or district will take them. Texas lawmakers are looking to provide incentives for districts to open their doors.

While many educational reform efforts quickly buckle to union pressure or public discontent, Texas’s system has only become more rigorous over time. If this trend continues, Texas, one of the nation’s poorest states, may soon become the best place to get an education.