Swimming in music’s wake; The publishing industry can take a few pointers from its aural colleagues

By Joshua Benton
Printer’s Row

Chicago Tribune

Books and music go way back — at least as far back as the epic poets, whose tales of heroic deeds were sung to gathered Greeks long before they were stuffed between two covers for high school students. When singer-songwriter Joe Pernice signed his first book deal a few years back, for the novel “It Feels So Good When I Stop,” his press release made the tie explicit: “I am really excited to join the Penguin family, where I get to be label mates with writers like Homer.”

While it’s hard to think of a content-producing industry that hasn’t been profoundly affected by the rise of digital technology, the businesses that create books and music have confronted very different realities.

Napster, file sharing and the rise of the MP3 turned a once highly profitable business on its ear. American sales of recorded music dropped by more than 50 percent in the first decade of this century, as CD sales plummeted and digital sales couldn’t rise fast enough to keep up. The average American bought less than four albums a year in 1999; that had dropped to barely one by 2009.

Meanwhile, while it’s not quite accurate to call the book industry thriving, it hasn’t faced anything near the trauma the music business has. At least not yet.

“It just seems to me that the book business is somewhere between five and 10 years behind the music business,” said Johnny Temple, the publisher of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. “It hasn’t seen the real disruption yet.”

Temple should know. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, music was his primary business as the bass player for the D.C. indie rock band Girls Against Boys. Akashic describes its list as “urban literary fiction and political nonfiction,” although it’s probably best known for publishing the children’s book for adults, “Go the F— to Sleep.”

Book publishing has a number of advantages over its musical brethren. Its customers tend to be a bit older and better off than the recording industry’s, which has helped keep piracy mostly under control. And music’s timing was off: Until iTunes came along in 2003, there were plenty of ways to get digital music for free, but no appealing platforms that let you pay for it. E-books, on the other hand, have reached the mainstream baked into payment platforms: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks.

But what publishing is figuring out is that digital disruption affects more than just an industry’s business model. It shakes up every stage of the craft: creation, distribution, discovery and consumption.

When file sharing first arrived in the late 1990s, the cost of hearing a song dropped from $18 at Sam Goody to zero. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Napster and their ilk, they had the effect of making it easier for people to dip into new genres — for indie nerds to hear some R&B, for hip-hop heads to check out the White Stripes. That led to a surge in artists who mixed and matched threads of pop culture, as cultural omnivores came to the fore.

“It’s a kind of opening of taste, in part because of the profound new accessibility of everything,” said Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard University who studies the impact of digital technology on music.

E-book buyers are proving more willing to be adventurous with their purchases than their print equivalents. What once took a drive down to Barnes & Noble can now be done with a few clicks or taps. “Buying an e-book is much less of a commitment than a print book, in terms of cost, in terms of space,” Temple said. “I get the feeling that people are more playful in their e-book buying than in print.”

When the return on CDs dropped through the floor, musicians were forced to come up with new ways to make money. An increased reliance on live performance — a product that can’t be easily replicated in ones and zeros — was the first shift. But there are new models popping up all the time.

Take Lil B, the Bay Area rapper who has made a name for himself by releasing literally hundreds of songs a year, almost all of them for free, and whose YouTube channel has gotten over 70 million views. Giving that all away has led to gigs at huge festivals like Coachella.

Or Amanda Palmer, the former Harvard Square busker who built an intense, direct connection with fans through impromptu events and a huge investment in social media. She was able to turn that devotion into a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $1.2 million for her new album.

“There are some artists who are going to do better in this environment than others,” Marshall said. “Extroverts. People who are savvy about these kinds of things. People willing and interested in putting in the time.”

Authors face many of the same questions. There’s no shortage of consultants willing to advise writers of the need to build a following on Twitter, to blog between books, to fill the marketing void that publishing houses used to fill. Some authors embrace it; others just want to sit at their typewriters and write another draft.

But as the terms of financial success have changed, so have the tools of distribution. What once required a big investment in studio time can now often be achieved in a bedroom with Pro Tools. Reaching an audience used to require a label deal; now it only requires a SoundCloud account. For people whose primary interest is to see their work spread — for whom financial success is secondary — the options have broadened.

Take a look at an e-book best-seller list and you’ll find it’s a populist document: a lot of romance and zombies. But you’ll also likely see some unfamiliar names, authors who’ve self-published and skipped over the publishing houses. There are still far more self-publishing flops than success stories, but those stories — Amanda Hocking selling 1.5 million copies of her paranormal fiction, most famously — are getting harder to ignore.

This disruption happens both on the low and the high end. Lots of scrappy indie bands offer their music at pay-what-you-want prices online — but so does Radiohead. Lots of independent authors are going around traditional houses to publish directly through Amazon’s Kindle — but so has Stephen King.

The digital transition for music meant that the album lost out to the individual track. Getting the one song you wanted used to require getting nine other ones you were less interested in. Now they’re all 99 cents a pop. And the formlessness of digital music has enabled music to get both shorter and longer: Two-hour DJ mixes can now spread as quickly as anything else.

Something similar is happening in books. Kindle Singles and boutique publishers like The Atavist are working to create a new home for the kind of work that’s too long for a magazine feature but not long enough for a traditional print book. If you had 20,000 good words on a topic 10 years ago, you probably had to chop it down to 3,000 for a magazine or blow it up to 60,000 for a book.

“We’re making works both longer and shorter,” Temple said. For some e-books, Akashic adds background material and author Q&As that wouldn’t make financial sense in print. But they’re also building smaller free samplers, remixing pieces of books together, and paying attention to sales data they can’t get as quickly for print books.

“There’s something about the fact that e-books aren’t a 400-year-old format that lets you play around with it and try things out,” Temple said.

The story is getting better for the music industry. After that decade of steep decline, music sales revenue was basically unchanged in the United States in 2011 from the year before. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry called it the “least negative result” since 2004 — the sort of stilted press-release speak familiar to those who follow the newspaper industry, where “flat” is the new “up.”

Concert revenue tripled in the United States in the 2000s. Record labels, like the influential Los Angeles hip-hop label Stones Throw, now offer digital subscription packages: Pay $10 a month and get a digital copy of everything the label produces, plus unreleased bonus material for the superfans. Licensing songs for use in TV ads is far more widely accepted than it was in the quick-to-call-sellout 1990s. And services like Spotify are pushing songs from something you buy 99 cents at a time to something you subscribe to and listen to whenever you want.

In other words, the music business is evolving. Even though people don’t buy jewel cases at the rate they once did, more albums are released each day now than 10 years ago — and that’s not counting the vast seas of music produced and distributed online that doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of an album.

“When the recording industry says ‘If you don’t support us, you won’t have music,’ that’s patently false,” said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University and author of the new book “MP3: The Meaning of a Format.” “Music existed for a long time before the recording industry came along. It’s a little blip in human history. People will find a way to make music.”

The book world has had the advantage of seeing what happened to other industries, and its transition to digital starts on firmer ground. But as the music business found, you can only get so far repackaging analog goods into digital packages. Everything is up in the air, and it’ll take some innovative thinking to ensure that the values of books are carried forth into the digital age.

“Music has an incredible advantage over books — it’s been road-tested for centuries, across all kinds of populations,” Temple said. “Books are so much more narrow of an art form. There aren’t legions of 18-year-old kids trying to revolutionize the book business.”

Joshua Benton is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

COLUMN: A year’s wait can make all the difference for your child

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

We here at The Dallas Morning News do not, traditionally, consider it our role to dictate the details of your sex life.

But if you want your next spawn to rise to the top of his or her class, here’s a bit of advice: Listen to the mistletoe and snuggle up to your loved one some time around Christmas Day.

That should put your kid on track for a mid-September birthday – and a vastly improved chance at being high school valedictorian.

Confused? That advice is based on a little experiment I did recently on the connection between a child’s birthday and academic success in school. But it has larger implications.

In Texas, kids are supposed to enter kindergarten if they’ve turned 5 by Sept. 1. Individual school districts are allowed to sneak in younger kids, and parents can choose to hold their kids out of school for an extra year. But the vast majority of kids start school in that one-year window.

How do those kids turn out years later, when it comes time for graduation?

The News publishes a list of the area’s valedictorians. I pulled all 207 of this year’s into a spreadsheet and used driver’s license records to look up their dates of birth. (I found 165 of them.)

The results may surprise you. In that graduating class, the oldest group of kids should have been those with September 1988 birthdays. That birth month produced 17 area valedictorians.

The youngest group of kids – the ones with August 1989 birthdays – produced only three.

In other words: It’s a lot harder to end up on top if you’re the runt of the litter.

The pattern extends beyond those extremes. Kids born in the first three months of that yearlong window were twice as likely to become a valedictorian as those born in the last three months. And a substantial number of valedictorians – 17 – were a full year older than they should have been, suggesting they had been held out of school for an extra year as toddlers.

Now, why would that be? Developmentally, there isn’t that much of a difference in the brain of an 18-year-old and, say, a 17-year-and-8-month-old. You wouldn’t expect one kid, on average, to be substantially smarter than the other.

But there is a substantial difference between a 6-year-old and a 5-year-and-8-month-old. When kids are young, a few months can make a big difference. Older kids may be identified from an early age as “smart” because of their age advantage. The younger ones might be tagged as “slow.” That can be true even if they have the same natural ability.

Teachers and parents create their images of these kids when they’re still small – and those images follow kids all the way through school.

You can see this sort of pattern in many places where a birthday cutoff is used to separate people.

For instance, 10 years ago, the international body that governs soccer decided to change the way it breaks children into age groups for select team competitions. Instead of letting kids move from age group to age group as their birthdays passed, it decided to set a uniform date that would be the cutoff point for everyone.

That date was Jan. 1. From that point on, kids with birthdays early in the year would always be the oldest, and kids born in November and December would always be the youngest.

As a result, the U.S. national soccer team for boys 15 and younger skews the way you’d imagine. The team has 24 members, and 17 of them have birthdays in January, February or March.

Again, does just a few months of age difference mean that much in the physical abilities of a teenager? Maybe.

But the bigger differences are when these kids are younger – when they’re playing their first soccer as 5- and 6-year-olds. Older kids, whose physical skills have developed a bit more, get singled out for the most praise. They get access to the best coaching. Their parents become convinced they have the most innate talent.

So what’s my point? My little calendar experiment reminds us of three truths about how we teach our children.

First, it’s a reminder that the images we assign to our children when they are young have real staying power. A boy told he’s slow as a second-grader can internalize that message for years. A girl told she’s bad at math in elementary school becomes a teenager who uses “I’m bad at math” as an excuse for not trying hard in Algebra II.

Second, it’s a reminder that delaying a child’s start of school, whatever its moral component, works.

Some choose to hold back their kids an extra year and start kindergarten when they are 6 instead of 5. They’d rather make Junior the biggest kid in the class instead of the smallest.

It’s a move particularly popular in wealthy districts, where competitive pressures are often fiercer and parents can easily afford another year of child care. I wrote an article a few years back that showed a child in Highland Park was roughly four times more likely to start kindergarten at 6 than a kid in the rest of Texas.

But parents should remember that someone is always going to be the youngest. By moving their kid to the start of the line, they’re pushing everyone else closer to the back of it. Few would consider it a crime to be selfish on your child’s behalf. But parents should still be aware that it’s, well, selfish.

Finally, it’s a reminder of just how much of what a school has to deal with is completely out of its control.

If 13 years of schooling can’t close the gaps caused by birthdays a few months apart, how much do you think it can do to close the gaps between a child born in poverty and one born into a middle-class home?

If some significant portion of a kid’s high school grades is based on his birthday, how much of it do you think is based on his childhood access to health care, or the lead in the tap water, or his parents’ ability to read to him at home?


Finally, an announcement: This will be my last column for a while. I’ll be spending the next academic year on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. There I’ll practice wearing tweed jackets, hating the Yankees and pronouncing “chowder” in a comical Kennedy accent. We’ll meet again on these pages next summer.

Lancaster ISD still lags behind; TAKS scores are higher since ’03, but increases among D-FW’s smallest

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 7B

When Superintendent Larry Lewis faces opposition to his financial management of Lancaster ISD, his response is to point to the academic progress in his district.

“I can give you data to show that where we were in ’03 and where we are today – that we’ve had tremendous academic improvement,” Dr. Lewis said Friday. “When you look at what we’ve done with students of poverty, of ethnic minority, we’ve seen tremendous growth since we’ve been here.”

But while Lancaster’s TAKS scores have improved, the increases have been smaller than those of almost every other area district.

In 2003, shortly before Dr. Lewis took over as superintendent, Lancaster had the second-worst test scores of any district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – slightly lower than those of the Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

The only district to score worse than Lancaster was the tiny Masonic Home district, which taught students at a Fort Worth orphanage. Both Masonic Home and Wilmer-Hutchins have since been shut down, following years of academic struggles.

But in 2006, after three years of testing under Dr. Lewis, Lancaster’s scores were still the lowest in the area.

Part of Lancaster’s poor performance can be attributed to its disadvantaged student body; low-income students generally score lower than middle-class or wealthy students. But five other districts in North Texas have higher poverty rates than Lancaster – and each has higher average TAKS scores than Lancaster.

In Dallas ISD, for example, 84 percent of students are low-income – higher than Lancaster’s 65 percent. Yet 53 percent of Dallas students passed all sections of the TAKS in 2006, compared with 38 percent in Lancaster.

While Lancaster’s TAKS passing rate has increased since 2003, the same is true of virtually every school district in the state. That’s because a number of unusual factors artificially lowered TAKS performance that year.

First, it was the first year that the TAKS test replaced the much easier TAAS. Schools almost always fare poorly when a tougher new exam debuts. Scores tend to increase as teachers learn more about what the test covers and find new ways to improve performance.

Second, schools knew that their 2003 scores, in many ways, didn’t count. State officials had put the school ratings system on a one-year hiatus – meaning that no schools were labeled “unacceptable” because of low scores.

In addition, passing the highest-pressure TAKS test of all – the 11th-grade exam – was not required for graduation that year, as it has been each year since. That caused scores to be low.

And while Lancaster has made gains, other districts have made substantially bigger ones.

Between 2003 and 2006, Lancaster’s overall passing rate on the TAKS increased 14 percentage points, from 24 percent to 38 percent. But during that same span, the state’s overall passing rate increased from 48 percent to 67 percent – an increase of 19 percentage points.

And during Dr. Lewis’ time in office, the gap between Lancaster and other area districts has grown.

In 2003, Lancaster was less than 1 percentage point behind the next-lowest-scoring district. But by 2006, it had fallen 12 percentage points behind the next-lowest- scoring district.

In fact, of the 58 school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Lancaster finished 50th in the size of its TAKS gains since 2003. And several districts with smaller gains – like Highland Park, Carroll, and McKinney – are high-scoring districts that, mathematically, didn’t have much room left to improve their passing rates.

Overall scores for the 2007 TAKS tests aren’t available yet, but scores broken down by subject and grade level are. Lancaster again fared very poorly. Of the 27 TAKS subject tests, Lancaster had the lowest passing rate in North Texas on 20.

TEA hears Lancaster’s 4-day school plan, considers audit; District’s finances raise concerns in waiver push

By Joshua Benton and Terrence Stutz
Staff Writers

Page 1B

AUSTIN – The dispute over Lancaster ISD’s proposed four-day school week reached Austin on Thursday as supporters and critics aired their views to the state education commissioner.

Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency is considering whether to send a team of auditors to the school district to check on worrisome financial data.

“It does appear that there is a significant, or has been a significant budget discrepancy,” acting Commissioner Robert Scott said after Thursday’s meeting, which was closed to the news media.

Mr. Scott will make the final decision on whether Lancaster will be granted a state waiver that would allow the 6,000-student district to offer fewer than the standard 180 school days.

After the 90-minute presentation Thursday, Lancaster schools Superintendent Larry Lewis said he felt it had gone “great.”

“I think they saw the benefits for kids, that it wasn’t just about cost savings and that there are some strong instructional reasons for doing this,” he said. “We are real excited about it and look forward to hearing from him. Regardless of what they do, they heard us today, and our kids got the benefit of the hearing.”

Mr. Scott said he would spend time over the next few days evaluating the proposal and getting more information from supporters and opponents. He said he hoped to have an answer next week, though he said he wasn’t making any promises.

Delivering the opposing viewpoint was Lancaster school board member Carolyn Morris, who told the commissioner that the proposal was ill-conceived and formulated with little participation from parents and taxpayers.

She was the only board member to vote no on the plan last week. She also presented Mr. Scott with a letter signed by several parents outlining their opposition. Had there been better notice of the meeting, she said, more parents would have made the trip to Austin.

“I was pleased the commissioner wanted to hear both sides,” she said. “I stressed to him that the community had a strong voice on this issue and wanted me to bring that voice to Austin.”

Although parents were never surveyed about the idea, Dr. Lewis said he believes they would overwhelmingly support the idea if it is implemented.

Ms. Morris responded: “They should have done a survey of parents. If they did, they would find a majority opposed to this.”

Mr. Scott said the agency still had a number of questions about the workability of Lancaster’s proposal. He said he wants to know more about how the rights of special education students would be affected, and how the district had made key decisions about its proposed Friday day care program.

Perhaps the most complex problem would be the necessary changes to the state’s school finance system. Texas public schools are funded based on the number of days their students attend school. A four-day week would normally mean a roughly 20 percent cut in funding. So approving Lancaster’s proposal would mean creating a separate funding formula just for the district.

“I don’t know that we’re equipped to do that right now,” Mr. Scott said. “That’s a big question for us – is this possible given our current capacity? … This decision has policy implications for the entire state.”

District officials acknowledged they had come up with the plan only two weeks ago, Mr. Scott said, adding that there were issues “I don’t think they had completely thought through.”

He said he had concerns about the impact the switch would have on parents so close to the start of school.

“I told them that I had to look at it that way,” he said. “I asked them if they would consider doing a pilot before implementing it across the district. They said they had thought about it but ruled it out.”

On the financial question, Mr. Scott said he had not examined Lancaster’s financial records thoroughly, adding that a key audit staffer at the agency was not at work this week. But he said the agency will determine soon whether a state audit team would need to visit the district.

Lancaster failed the most recent state financial accountability ratings, in part because of its very low fund balances. It has had to take out bridge loans to pay its bills in at least three of the past four years, and it was months late producing its annual audit this year because of unanswered questions about district accounts.

Board documents from earlier this month showed a nearly $9 million shortfall between available revenues and expenditures for the upcoming year. Dr. Lewis has said any financial problems are being exaggerated and refused to answer questions about them. Mr. Scott said Dr. Lewis characterized the problems as “rumors.”

Dr. Lewis insisted Thursday that the proposal was based primarily on academic rather than financial concerns. He said he wants students to have longer uninterrupted stretches of class time, particularly in science.

“It just gives us so many more academic opportunities that we’ve never had before in Lancaster,” he said.

According to Mr. Scott, Dr. Lewis estimated the cost savings at $700,000, not the $1.9 million he told board members last week.

Asked what he would do if the commissioner turns down the request, Dr. Lewis said he would try again next year.

“There is no question that if we don’t get it this year, we will come back next year, because we see the benefits of this,” he said.

Monitors came, TAKS scores plummeted; Houston-area school previously was cleared of cheating by state

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Does Forest Brook High School have a TAKS cheating problem? It depends whom you believe. But new evidence points to yes.

Despite highly suspicious test scores, a February report by the Texas Education Agency declared the Houston school cheating-free – largely because school officials, when asked, said they were unaware of any wrongdoing on their campus.

But last month, a Dallas Morning News statistical analysis found that Forest Brook had one of the worst cheating problems in Texas. Looking at two years of scores, the analysis found more than 350 TAKS answer sheets had answer patterns that were suspiciously similar – in some cases identical – to those of at least one classmate.

Now, newly released test scores give further support to the idea. This spring, the state required outside monitors to oversee TAKS testing at Forest Brook. They watched over every stage of the testing process in an attempt to prevent any potential misdeeds.

The result? Under outside scrutiny, the school’s scores collapsed.

On the 11th-grade test – the one students must pass to graduate – Forest Brook’s math passing rate dropped from 80 percent in 2006 to 44 percent this year.

In science, the tumble was from 89 percent to 39 percent.

And in social studies – traditionally the easiest of the TAKS tests – Forest Brook dropped from a perfect 100 percent to 72 percent.

Despite the evidence, TEA officials defend their investigation, which looked at scores from 2005. The February report said the school should be “cleared of any wrongdoing” in its administration of the test.

“We did our investigation and we did not find the evidence we would have needed” to prove cheating, said Jim Lyde, TEA’s deputy inspector general, who investigated Forest Brook and other schools in the North Forest Independent School District.

Despite numerous attempts over the last week, North Forest officials did not respond to requests for comment.

History of problems

North Forest, a low-income district, has a long history of difficulties, both academic and financial. In many ways, its schools are to Houston what the since-closed Wilmer-Hutchins schools were to Dallas: the ones that were always in trouble.

Enrollment has declined more than 25 percent since 1997, when it was 13,758. The district has had six superintendents since 2000. The most recent to go, James Simpson, was fired in March for, among other reasons, failing to notify the board about a Lifetime Channel movie on one of the district’s high schools.

When Dr. Simpson appealed his dismissal to the board, several of its members walked out of a meeting – and then declared the meeting over because they had walked out. (A state hearing examiner later ordered Dr. Simpson reinstated.)

Last month, the district’s interim police chief filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, alleging he was suspended from his job because he was investigating whether four school board members were responsible for $23 million in missing funds.

The district’s management problems have been echoed in its academic performance. Only three of its schools earned a rating of acceptable from the state last year. The eight others that were rated were declared unacceptable. That included Forest Brook, whose scores on other TAKS tests were low. North Forest’s performance was, by a wide margin, the worst of any major Texas school district.

One school, Oak Village Middle, has earned an unacceptable rating in each of the last three years. It’s one of only five Texas schools with such a string of low performance.

It was Oak Village that led TEA to require monitors to oversee TAKS testing this spring. Under Texas law, a fourth year of unacceptable scores gives the state education commissioner the authority to order a school closed.

In March, then-Commissioner Shirley Neeley sent a letter to North Forest officials saying she wanted to make sure the scores reported this year were completely accurate. That meant, she wrote, the district had to bring in outside monitors to oversee testing and ensure no security rules were violated.

As it turns out, the monitors appear not to have had a significant impact on Oak Village’s scores, which increased slightly from 2006. But scores at Forest Brook High took a remarkable nosedive under outside supervision.

Independent scrutiny

Over the last two years, two independent analyses have found signs of substantial cheating at Forest Brook. The first was performed by the test-security firm Caveon, which TEA hired in 2005 to analyze that year’s TAKS scores at all Texas schools.

Caveon “flagged” 700 schools whose scores it considered suspicious in some way. Schools with extremely suspect scores were flagged multiple times – indicating they were suspicious in a number of ways.

Most of the 700 schools Caveon identified received only one or two flags. Forest Brook received 51. No other school in the state received more than 30.

Then, the News analysis of scores from 2005 and 2006 again found extremely unlikely answer patterns at Forest Brook. Many students had answer sheets that were identical or nearly identical to their fellow students’ – the sort of similarity that experts say cannot be the result of chance.

The Caveon analysis triggered Mr. Lyde’s investigation. But that investigation cleared Forest Brook entirely, finding “no evidence of purposive impropriety” by school or district officials.

To explain the astounding number of flags that Caveon assigned their school, North Forest officials advanced two theories.

The first was that Forest Brook teachers had worked very hard – that they had improved instruction in many ways and that better student learning could have triggered Caveon’s suspicions.

The second was creative: that Forest Brook had been flagged so many times because of the way it boxed its answer sheets.

Officials said that, when they shipped student answer sheets off to be graded, they divided them up by the classroom in which the tests were taken: Miss Smith’s students in one group, Miss Jones’ in another, and so on.

They argued that this boxing could have somehow garnered Caveon’s attention and suspicions because several similar answer sheets could have wound up together in a small batch. In a school that packed an entire grade’s worth of answer sheets in one batch, they argued, a few suspicious students would be less likely to stand out.

“The district testing coordinator gave me an explanation and I found evidence to support it,” Mr. Lyde said in a recent interview.

That evidence consisted of asking three individuals whether the explanation could be true. The first was the testing coordinator in another school district Mr. Lyde was investigating for possible cheating. That person said she considered North Forest’s explanation “a possibility,” according to records.

The second person was an employee of Pearson, the company that produces the TAKS, who said the North Forest theory “could be possible.” The third person was a TEA testing official who said the theory was “plausible.”

Based on that evidence, Mr. Lyde said he accepted the North Forest explanation and cleared Forest Brook of any wrongdoing.

“I have a protocol and a process that I’m supposed to follow,” he said. “In this case, I had sufficient reason given to me to explain the flags.”

‘Not even remotely possible’

But experts say – and easily accessible records show – that North Forest’s explanation does not reflect reality.

“This is not even remotely possible,” said Robert Frary, a professor emeritus of educational measurement at Virginia Tech, who has studied cheating detection for more than 30 years and is familiar with Caveon’s methods. “This is not even a 1-in-billions chance.”

First, Forest Brook is by no means alone in batching its testing documents by classroom. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Texas schools package their documents that way. None of them had scores anywhere near as suspicious as Forest Brook’s.

Second, Caveon’s own report to the state shows it does not evaluate schools in the manner that would be required for North Forest’s explanation to be correct. It is actually substantially harder for a small batch of students – like Forest Brook’s – to earn a Caveon flag, not easier.

Caveon’s analysis gives small groups the benefit of the doubt. In other words, Caveon considers a four-student classroom with two suspicious answer sheets less worthy of note than a 40-student classroom with 20 suspicious answer sheets.

Third, the district’s explanation would not account for why Forest Brook was also flagged nine times in a part of Caveon’s analysis that looked at answer patterns for the whole school, not individual classrooms. In that analysis, Caveon ignored distinctions among the various batches of answer sheets sent by schools and examined schools as a whole. Forest Brook’s nine school-wide flags were the second-highest total in the state.

North Forest’s other explanation for its Caveon flags – that its teachers worked very hard to boost scores – also has little connection to Caveon’s findings. What Caveon found most suspicious in Forest Brook was that its students had long strings of incorrect answers in common.

Decades of research on cheating have shown those long, identical runs of wrong answers are common when students or adults are copying answers from one answer sheet to another. Excellent instruction would not increase the number of identical wrong answers.

But despite all the statistical evidence and the sudden performance drop this year with monitors, TEA officials are standing by their decision to clear Forest Brook.

“I think what we may have, and that includes Forest Brook, is kids copying off of other kids,” said Mr. Lyde, who did not interview any students as part of his investigation. “That’s not something we were specifically geared to locate. We’re looking for educators who are cheating.”

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe suggested another explanation: that the decline in scores this spring might be attributable to the district’s change in superintendents, which could have created a difficult atmosphere for students.

But other North Forest schools – despite experiencing the same administrative chaos – did not experience score declines anywhere near the scale Forest Brook did.

The state’s clearing of Forest Brook had one other effect on the school. It freed up its access to the $165,000 Governor’s Educator Excellence Grant the school had qualified for. It was awarded the money because of its rapidly rising test scores in 2006.

Doubts on 4-day school; Lancaster ISD: Studies touted by officials reveal a lack of academic gains

By Joshua Benton and Karen Ayres
Staff Writers

Page 1B

Lancaster school officials told parents and school board members this week that a proposal to switch to a four-day school week was based on solid research showing academic benefits. But the studies they produced show inconclusive and, at times, negative results.

Superintendent Larry Lewis said he and his staff had used Google to thoroughly research their proposal – dubbed “Four Days to Exemplary” – which he characterized as part of a one-year pilot program to start this fall.

His office supplied three studies to the public that focused on four-day programs in small, remote school districts, including one in Micronesia and another on islands off the west coast of Canada. Much of the research reported little evidence of academic gains. Some of the districts have since abandoned four-day plans.

“We have researched this to the hilt for our kids,” Dr. Lewis told nearly 1,000 parents and students Thursday night.

Many parents at the forum questioned the applicability of the research Dr. Lewis produced.

School board member Carolyn Morris said he had given board members the three articles three days earlier, just before asking for a vote to send his plan to the state for approval.

“If this was all he could find, no, it’s not good enough,” Ms. Morris, the only board member who voted against it, said Friday.

Dr. Lewis said Thursday night that he would not discuss the plan with the press. He did not return a phone message Friday.

The first study is a 1992 analysis that examined alternative calendars on Pacific islands. It focused on two Hawaii elementary schools – one that had adopted a four-day plan and another that was planning to – and schools on Kosrae, the fourth-largest island group in the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Micronesian schools had switched to a four-day calendar in 1987, primarily to encourage students to use their free Fridays to keep traditional fishing and farming skills alive.

The paper had broadly positive thoughts on a four-day calendar but noted that it might not work in environments more like Lancaster and less like Lost.

“The new schedule may not work in urban areas, but it has demonstrated its effectiveness in small/rural school districts,” wrote the author, Stan Koki, a senior associate at the Pacific Region Educational Laboratory.

By the time the paper was written in 1992, a new island administration had already ended the experiment and moved the Micronesian schools back to a five-day calendar. Both Hawaiian campuses followed suit a few years later.

Many Lancaster parents didn’t trust the comparison anyway.

“Hawaii? We’re not in Hawaii. We don’t have 365 days of nice weather,” Maria Esparza, president of Lancaster’s Council of PTAs, said this week.

The second study was a 1999 article written by the superintendent of Saratoga schools, a tiny district in Arkansas not far outside Texarkana.

The superintendent, Lewis Diggs, had generally positive remarks about the four-day program he began in the 240-student district. But after one year, he said he was “certainly disappointed” that the academic gains he had anticipated had not materialized.


What Dr. Lewis did not mention is that after three years with a four-day schedule, Saratoga abandoned the plan and switched back to a five-day school week.

“It didn’t do anything to help academics,” Saratoga’s high school principal told The Christian Science Monitor in 2004. That year, the school district was shut down and merged into a neighboring district.

Ms. Morris, of Lancaster’s school board, said findings in the Saratoga district couldn’t be applied to Lancaster anyhow.

“That district only had 250 students,” she said. “We’re talking about over 6,000 students here in Lancaster. That’s not a clear comparison.”

The third study was written by a Canadian elementary school principal and focused on his unusual school system: the Gulf Islands district, which has about 1,600 students scattered across five small islands off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Lancaster officials only reproduced a small portion of the study, a master’s thesis written by Richard Bennett. But even that portion is less than enthusiastic about academic gains.

“The literature produces little substantial evidence that a change to a four-day week has either a positive or a negative effect on student achievement,” Mr. Bennett wrote.

The paper – in some of the portions not reproduced by Lancaster officials – points to other drawbacks. For example, Mr. Bennett surveyed 30 teachers in the district about what they thought of a four-day week.

Sixty percent of teachers said they were generally satisfied with the schedule. But nearly 75 percent said they couldn’t cover as much material in the four-day week as in the traditional schedule – even with longer school days.

Worth a try?

Lancaster school board member Shelia Stanmore said Friday that she read through Dr. Lewis’ research and looked up information about four-day weeks on her own. Though the research isn’t conclusive, Ms. Stanmore believes it’s worth giving it a try.

“You can look up all the research you want, but no one can predict what will happen in Lancaster,” Ms. Stanmore said. “We can always go back.”

Lancaster trustees voted 5-1 on Monday to request a schedule waiver from the state for the four-day proposal. If state gives its approval, the school board would need to vote on whether to establish a new school calendar.

District officials say the four-day schedule would improve instruction, conserve energy and boost relations with parents and the community. They also project that it could save as much as $1.9 million, which would help fill a hole in the district’s budget.

Dr. Lewis repeatedly told the crowd on Thursday that the plan was not about money, noting that the $1.9 million in projected savings from staff and utility cost reductions may not materialize.

The program would call for lengthy school days in exchange for Fridays off. Elementary students would be in class from 7:45 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. High school classes would last from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Many parents said they worry children would get into trouble on the extra day off and they’re angry about having to pay for child care each Friday.

The idea for the four-day week came from the district’s human resources director.

“We started Googling all over the place about a four-day school week,” Dr. Lewis told the crowd Thursday night. “At the end of the session, we were totally stupefied at what we thought were great instructional improvements.”

Staff writer Kathy A. Goolsby contributed to this report.

Lancaster ISD may cut back to 4 days; District says move would save $1.9M, but outrage, fears of W-H repeat arise

By Joshua Benton and Kathy A. Goolsby
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Facing a budget crunch, Lancaster schools are considering a move that has traditionally been reserved for districts in fiscal crisis: cutting down to a four-day school week.

The sudden move, which requires state approval, would set students and teachers free on Fridays in exchange for longer school days the rest of the week. District officials say the new calendar would save about $1.9 million a year and help eat into a shortfall looming over next year’s budget.

Reaction to the unusual proposal among parents and other residents has not been positive.

“I’m outraged,” said Greg Stephenson, father of two Lancaster students. “They need to be considering changing to a six-day week, not cutting back. These kids need more time at school, not less.”

The district’s financial troubles come almost exactly three years after similar problems emerged in the neighboring Wilmer-Hutchins school district. The similarities are worrying to some.

“It’s scary – residents should definitely be very worried,” Lancaster school board member Carolyn Morris said of the district’s financial condition.

She was the only board member to vote against seeking a state waiver for the four-day proposal at a board meeting Monday night. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled tonight at Lancaster High School.

Larry Lewis, the district’s superintendent, said through a representative Wednesday that he was too busy to speak to the media about his plan. The representative added that Dr. Lewis was the only person in the district qualified to speak about the issue.

The proposal calls for school days that some might consider epic. Elementary students would be in class from 7:45 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. High school classes would stretch from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., longer than many adults’ workdays.

“People who have jobs after school, it’s going to be hard on them,” said Lancaster High senior Tymika Jarvis. “Staying in school that long will throw you off a bit. And with all the extra stuff after school, you wouldn’t have that much time to do everything.”

Maria Esparza, president of Lancaster’s Council of PTAs, said she’s been fielding lots of calls from angry parents. She said the plan will create a hardship for working parents.

“My job won’t let me be off on Fridays, and I’m not going to put my seventh-grader in Tiger Time,” the district’s after-school program, she said. “So I’m going to have to find an individual to take care of her.”

More Tiger Time

Lancaster has one of North Texas’ poorest student bodies, with about two-thirds of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. The district plans to offer an all-day version of Tiger Time on Friday that will cost families $25 a week per child – or about $900 a year.

Even strong backers of Dr. Lewis are questioning the new schedule. Community activist Roosevelt Nichols said charging parents $25 for Friday day care would be abusive.

“To turn them out of school, then turn around and charge them to come to school on Friday – that should be illegal,” Mr. Nichols said. “It may solve the district’s financial burden, but it’s going to cost the parents and the community.”

But Lancaster trustee Russ Johnson said Dr. Lewis should be given the chance to show the benefits of a short week.

“I think there will be a lot of resistance to it, which is always the case when you introduce new things,” he said. “It will depend on how well Dr. Lewis and his staff can sell the community on the program’s merits.”

Four-day school weeks are uncommon. The first school to adopt one did so to cut costs during the energy crisis in 1972. A 2003 survey by the National Association of School Boards found that only about 100 of the roughly 15,000 school districts nationwide had four-day weeks.

They exist almost entirely in rural areas, mostly in Colorado and New Mexico. That’s because a four-day week means one fewer day of bus service – a major expense in districts that cover large swaths of territory. Children often work on the family farm or ranch on their extra day off.

“It worries me how it would work in an urban context,” said Bob Richburg, a professor emeritus of education at Colorado State. He started studying four-day weeks more than 20 years ago.

Lancaster Police Chief Dan Shiner said it’s too early to tell what kind of effect giving students Fridays off would have on the city. “It’s summertime now and everybody’s out of school, and we’re able to deal with it,” he said.

In a presentation to board members Monday, Dr. Lewis said four-day weeks brought a “documented increase in student achievement.” But Dr. Richburg says that’s not true. His own study comparing four- and five-day districts in Colorado found no gains.

“I just think they’re trying to find something to justify a position they want to take for other reasons,” he said.

The cost savings from a four-day week tend to be in transportation and utility bills. But Lancaster doesn’t predict huge savings in those categories – $90,000 and $250,000, respectively. That would only be about 1 percent of last year’s budget.

It predicts that the largest savings – $1.1 million – will come from cutting 13 positions at the high school that it says will become unnecessary on a four-day schedule.

Dr. Richburg said four-day schedules could be academically productive if properly set up. For example, some such schools require Friday tutoring sessions for all students in academic trouble. Other districts use Fridays for intensive teacher training.

“But if you do things like that, you’re not going to save any money,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Lancaster will be able to get the Texas Education Agency’s approval for a four-day week. The agency allows districts to adopt what it calls an Optional Flexible Year Program, which allows minor changes to the calendar to aid in instruction.

But that program sets a number of requirements that it appears Lancaster can’t meet. It also requires that a district submit its request at least 90 days before the start of the school year. School starts Aug. 27, so that deadline passed weeks ago.

State approval is important because Texas public schools are funded based on their average daily attendance. Fewer days of school means less state funding.

Lancaster could use a different part of state law to try to get around state calendar requirements.

As of the close of business Wednesday, TEA had not received a formal request for a waiver from Lancaster.

Earlier financial woes

Whatever happens with the four-day week, Lancaster’s most pressing concerns remain financial. The district has run afoul of state regulators on the issue before.

This spring, Lancaster missed a state deadline to report an annual audit of the district’s books. That automatically earned the district a rare failing grade in the state’s annual financial accountability ratings.

When the audit was finally completed – more than two months late – it produced financial figures that didn’t match what the district had reported separately to state officials.

The district audit report also criticized Lancaster’s internal financial management. The district’s main bank account had not been reconciled for over a year – and when it was, “a significant unreconciled difference existed,” the auditors wrote.

State data show Lancaster spends a larger percentage of its funds on administration (16 percent) than state guidelines consider the maximum advisable (12 percent).

At the audit’s closing date in August, the district had less than $275,000 in its general fund. Earlier this year, that total had dropped below $30,000, said Ms. Morris, the school board member. In at least three of the past four years, the district had to borrow more than $3 million to meet its expenses.

Part of the problem is in the district’s budgeting. According to the audit, the district budgeted $36.2 million in revenue for the 2005-06 school year. Revenue proved to be $31.9 million.

Lancaster residents hope their district doesn’t move in the direction of its former neighbor, Wilmer-Hutchins. For years, the two districts had the area’s worst test scores.

When Wilmer-Hutchins officials decided in 2005 to shut their schools and ship students to a neighboring district, Lancaster was their first choice. But there was widespread public opposition, with some Lancaster parents saying their own district was in too precarious a position to risk taking on the Wilmer-Hutchins students.

“If your boat is already sinking, you don’t put another rock in the boat,” one resident, Herman Tucker, said at the time. Wilmer-Hutchins was eventually dissolved and merged into the larger Dallas school district – a decision that still angers many residents.

TEA officials said they have no current audits or investigations under way in Lancaster.

TEA: Teacher leaked part of TAKS; Exclusive: Amarillo educator says he wanted to help school, contends others do the same

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

An Amarillo teacher leaked a portion of this spring’s TAKS writing test to his colleagues because he wanted his school’s students to have a better chance at passing, a state investigation has found.

The teacher said that he leaked the information because he believed that educators in other districts were doing the same and that Amarillo students were “as deserving of prior knowledge of TAKS test information as students” in those other Texas districts, according to an investigative report released by the Texas Education Agency.

David Tamez, an elementary bilingual teacher, told investigators that he obtained the test information by volunteering to serve on a statewide committee of educators who help determine which questions make it onto the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills each year, the report states. He alleged that members of those committees regularly smuggle out secret TAKS information to share in their home districts – a contention TEA officials vigorously dispute.

“You know good and well what people are doing,” Mr. Tamez said, according to a tape recording of his interview with investigators. “They’re writing down prompts; they’re writing down information.”

The TEA inspector general’s office is recommending a further investigation to determine whether Mr. Tamez’s claims of widespread improprieties are valid.

“We believe in the security of our current system,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

One person interviewed by investigators gave a different account from Mr. Tamez’s. An Amarillo teacher signed a statement saying Mr. Tamez bragged that the source of his insider test information was someone else entirely: a person he had sex with who works for a company that helps build the TAKS.

Mr. Tamez could not be reached for comment Thursday. According to the report, he has resigned his position in Amarillo and recently moved to the Houston area.

Writing prompt

The information Mr. Tamez leaked was the topic on which students taking this year’s fourth-grade writing test are asked to write a brief essay, known as the writing prompt. Students who don’t write an essay that is at least minimally satisfactory automatically fail – no matter how they perform on the test’s multiple-choice section.

Having students write practice essays on the prompt in the days leading up to the exam, in a less stressful environment, could give a school an edge.

The leak to Amarillo teachers occurred at a Feb. 14 meeting of that district’s reading specialists. During the discussion, according to written statements by people who were there, Mr. Tamez said that he was involved in the selection of TAKS items and that he had suggestions on what students should be studying in the days leading up to the test.

He said that it was important for students to practice writing a personal essay using the word “I” and that they needed to know how to write about their feelings when helping others, the report states. He also said that he couldn’t go into more detail before the group without losing his teaching license but that if any teachers wanted more information about the upcoming test, they could approach him after the meeting.

Several teachers said they did approach him individually, to ask him about parts of his talk they found confusing. Each said that instead of answering their questions, he told them exactly what the prompt would be.

Amarillo district officials gathered that something was wrong and told staffers not to share Mr. Tamez’s information with their students or use it to study, according to the report.

“It raised a great alarm among our people,” Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “The integrity of the test was our top priority.”

A week later, on test day, it became clear that Mr. Tamez had inside information. The writing prompt this spring was: “Write a composition about a time when you helped someone.”

Internal investigation

The Amarillo ISD conducted an internal investigation, which concluded that teachers had not shared the prompt with their classes and that student scores were still valid. But it also found evidence that Mr. Tamez had learned the prompt from an unidentified employee of Pearson Educational Measurement, which has a $279 million contract to manage the TAKS and other state tests.

One teacher gave investigators a signed written statement about a conversation she had with Mr. Tamez after he gave out the writing prompt.

“I asked him why he knew specifics about the test, and he pulled out a business card and said ‘Because I slept with'” the person, she wrote. She said she did not remember the name on the card, but the person “was from a company called Pearson.”

She told investigators in an interview that the sex had occurred the weekend before the meeting at which he shared the writing prompt with his colleagues.

When a state investigator later asked Mr. Tamez about the claim, he indicated that it actually referred to an employee of a company called TRI-LIN Integrated Services, a San Antonio company that translates some versions of the TAKS from English to Spanish. But he said that he did not have sex with the TRI-LIN employee and that he never told anyone he did.

“If I slept with someone, it wasn’t to get a prompt,” he said in the recorded interview with the investigator.

Mr. Tamez told investigators he had overheard the prompt at a TAKS educator committee meeting he had attended the previous June. Those are state-organized meetings of Texas teachers where they evaluate questions for inclusion on future TAKS tests.

Records show that Mr. Tamez served on such a committee that focused on the fourth-grade Spanish math test June 29 and 30 last year.

Mr. Tamez told investigators that, even though writing wasn’t the subject of the meeting, he overhead a group of educators discussing three or four prompts that could be chosen for the next year’s writing test. One of them, he said, was the subject of particularly intense discussion, and he thought that could be the true writing prompt. He said he went back to his hotel room and wrote the prompts down.

He said that such behavior was common at these TAKS committee meetings, where he often witnessed teachers secretly scribbling notes about questions, according to his interview.

“If you look at the people who serve on the committee and how many of them their vocabulary scores go up, you would find that there is definitely cheating going on – because you know word for word what the words are on the vocabulary test,” he told the state investigator.

He said that he then shared the information with his Amarillo colleagues because he didn’t want his students to be at a disadvantage against students in other districts where committee members spread inside information.

“I’m not saying … [Amarillo students] deserve to cheat. I’m not saying that. But the fact of the matter is that I was the one that was caught, you know?” The TEA investigation did not attempt to determine whether Mr. Tamez’s allegation about leaks in other districts is accurate. But the report does recommend “further investigation of information received that widespread and systemic improprieties may have been committed by committee members who are charged with the responsibilities associated with the preparation of TAKS tests.”

There are reasons to doubt Mr. Tamez’s story that he heard about the prompt at the state committee meeting.

First, according to TEA staff, the process of selecting this year’s fourth-grade writing prompt did not begin until last September – months after the meeting. And this year’s prompt was drawn from a list of more than 50 candidates – not three or four.

“That is a complete lie,” Victoria Young said of Mr. Tamez’s allegation that he learned the prompt when he said he did. She heads development of the reading, writing and social studies portions of the TAKS at TEA.

Agency officials also said that though they would welcome suggested improvements to security at educator committee meetings, they believe claims of widespread problems are false.

“I think that would have come to our attention in many different ways, and it hasn’t,” said Ms. Ratcliffe, the TEA spokeswoman.

Educators are required to sign an oath saying they will not share information outside the committee, and they are not allowed to take notes on any paper that they will be allowed to leave the room with.

“It appears this individual has told multiple versions of how he obtained the information he did,” said Criss Cloudt, TEA’s top assessment official.

There is also reason to doubt that a TRI-LIN employee was his source. Dr. Cloudt said TRI-LIN handles only the Spanish version of the fourth-grade writing test, which uses a completely different writing prompt from the English version. Mr. Tamez leaked the English version’s prompt.

In exchange for agreeing to cooperate with the TEA investigation, Mr. Tamez will receive a written reprimand that will appear on his teaching certificate. But he will retain that certificate and thus will be able to pursue employment in Texas public schools.

State auditor to probe TEA; Contract inquiry comes on heels of internal investigation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Amid all the confusion surrounding an internal investigation at the Texas Education Agency, the state auditor’s office has decided to take its own look at how the agency hands out lucrative contracts.

“Perhaps they can talk to all the parties involved and resolve all this,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “Good luck.”

State auditor John Keel confirmed Tuesday that his office had opened an investigation but said that he could not comment further.

Although it will probably be weeks or months before the new investigation is concluded, it could help to settle the confusion that surrounds the internal investigation’s report – in particular one footnote that has implications for Robert Scott, TEA’s acting commissioner.

He was criticized last month when the TEA investigation found evidence he improperly intervened in a contract awarded to a friend of his named Emily Chick Miller.

Mr. Scott vigorously denied the charges, and he responded last week by saying he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity. He said investigators may have confused him with a different education official with the same name – an administrative employee who works in the Waco regional education office that handled the contract.

That second Mr. Scott now also denies he did the things the report alleges the first Mr. Scott did.

(Thankfully for clarity’s sake, the acting education commissioner goes by Robert Scott. The Waco-based official uses the name Rob Scott.)

In the disputed footnote, investigators say Ms. Miller told them she negotiated the contract terms – “including the scope of work and the amount to be paid” – with the TEA Robert Scott before the contract was ever steered to the Waco office. The $100,000 contract was to evaluate the state’s hearings process in discipline cases.

Through a spokeswoman, the Waco Rob Scott said Tuesday that he had nothing to do with the negotiations the footnote describes – that he had simply handled some of the contract’s administration.

“He did not negotiate any terms, any amounts, anything,” said Jennifer Marshall-Higgins of the Waco office. “He did the paperwork.”

But Ms. Marshall-Higgins added that, as far as officials in the Waco regional office know, the TEA Robert Scott also had no role in any such negotiations, either.

There is confusion over one other part of the disputed footnote. It quotes TEA’s Robert Scott as saying he recommended Ms. Miller to Tom Norris, the head of the Waco office. But both Mr. Scott and Dr. Norris now say that that isn’t accurate – that Mr. Scott played no role in leading Ms. Miller to be hired.

TEA Inspector General Michael Donley, who led the internal investigation, declined to comment Tuesday.

Robert Scott became acting commissioner on July 1, when Commissioner Shirley Neeley stepped down.

He had previously been deputy commissioner. He is considered a possible permanent successor to Dr. Neeley, which has turned his appearance in the disputed footnote into a political issue.

The one person who, perhaps more than anyone, could testify as to the actual events is Ms. Miller.

The report finds a number of instances where she allegedly benefited from the intervention of others. She has not responded to multiple attempts to contact her, via phone and e-mail.

COLUMN: Magazine’s list of best high schools is overrated

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

I know this column will be misunderstood, so let me be clear from the start: Dallas’ School for the Talented and Gifted is a terrific school.

TAG, as it’s known, is the school system’s bright shining star. If I had kids, I’d be happy to send them there.

Great teachers, great students – the whole nine. Don’t interpret anything that follows as a criticism of the school.

But to claim, as Newsweek did recently, that it’s the best high school in America is silly. It stretches the boundaries of reason.

Each year, the magazine issues a new set of its oddly precise rankings. (Ever wondered where the 543rd-best high school in America is? Georgia, apparently.) Schools that rank high celebrate their success. Those that drop curse their misfortune.

This year – for the second year in a row – TAG finished No. 1 overall. And right behind it was Dallas’ Science and Engineering Magnet, which shares a building with TAG. District officials were understandably proud to lay claim to the two best high schools in the country.

But here are five reasons why Newsweek’s list isn’t worth the glossy paper it’s printed on.

First: Newsweek’s rankings are based entirely on one unreliable number.

A school’s spot on the list is determined by dividing the number of Advanced Placement tests it gave last year by the number of graduates it produced.

(Some schools offer International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests in addition to or instead of AP tests.)

That’s it. One single number.

Notice all the things that don’t count. SAT scores. Scores on state tests like the TAKS. Dropout rates. Poverty rates. None of those matter – just the number of AP tests given.

Also notice that kids don’t actually have to perform well on all those tests. To Newsweek, a kid who gets the highest score counts just as much as one who takes the test on a lark and gets the lowest.

AP tests are a good thing. Kids who take them typically have challenged themselves with a difficult course of study – one that many universities will accept for college credit.

But they’re hardly the best or only way to judge a school’s quality. As others have pointed out, some schools that rank high on Newsweek’s list would be considered mediocre by other standards. Some have been declared “in need of improvement” by the federal government. Others have major dropout problems or huge gaps in how white and minority students perform.

But to Newsweek, only one number matters.

Second: A well-intended incentive program artificially increases the number of AP tests given at TAG and SEM.

In 1995, a nonprofit group called AP Strategies began a program to pay Dallas students and teachers for passing AP tests. Today, at TAG and other Dallas high schools, a passing score in math, English or science is worth $100 to a student and $150 to his or her teacher.

It’s a lovely program, supported by private donors, that has encouraged Dallas kids to take tougher classes and work harder. At the high schools that have been in the program the longest, the number of AP tests given has increased from 379 in 1995 to 3,969 last year.

But it also hopelessly warps any comparison between Dallas high schools and those where similar programs aren’t available. The promise of cold, hard cash, as it turns out, is a pretty strong incentive for kids to take lots of tests.

TAG had 14 AP tests taken per graduating senior in Newsweek’s count. SEM, the second-place school, had 10.7.

But the numbers drop off rapidly from there. Only nine other schools – in the entire country! – had more than six. Two Dallas high schools basically lapped the nation.

So does that mean TAG is really more than twice as good as the 11th-best school in the country? Or does it mean the scoring system is screwy?

Third: Kids at TAG take a lot of AP tests – but they don’t do amazingly well on them.

In 2006, TAG students passed 58.9 percent of the AP tests they took. (That means they got a score of three or above on the test’s one-to-five scale.)

That’s actually a hair below the national average, which was 59.4 percent.

Wouldn’t you expect the best high school in America to have a passing rate higher than the national average?

In some areas, such as computer science, TAG students fare well. But of the 36 students who took the U.S. history test last year, 23 flunked it. Twenty-eight TAG kids took the AP physics test – but only five passed. Eighteen scored a one.

Full statewide numbers for 2006 aren’t available yet, but the stats for 2005 are. That year, TAG had the 65th-highest AP passing rate in Texas. In the Dallas area alone, 15 schools beat TAG.

In fact, in 2005, nearly one in five TAG juniors and seniors didn’t pass a single AP test – despite the sheer number of exams they were signed up for.

Fourth: Newsweek’s methodology is supposed to eliminate schools like TAG from the rankings. But TAG slips through because its SAT scores aren’t high enough.

The man behind the Newsweek rankings, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, recognizes that not all schools are created equal. The country’s most elite public high schools – like the famous Bronx Science and Stuyvesant highs in New York City – get to pick their students from a tremendous pool of talent. It’s not fair, really, to compare Bronx Science to, say, Mesquite Poteet. So those schools get knocked out of Newsweek’s list.

“The Challenge Index is designed to honor schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests,” Mr. Mathews writes. “It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students.”

But shouldn’t that mean it doesn’t work with a place like TAG, which gets to choose the brightest kids in Dallas through an application process? The students who walk into class at TAG as freshmen are hardly “average students.” Which part of “talented and gifted” isn’t clear?

In fact, the upper reaches of Newsweek’s list are littered with schools where “average students” are as rare as unicorns. They have names like City Honors High, Academic Magnet, and School for Advanced Studies. Several have no, or next to no, poor kids, like our own Highland Park High, which ranked 15th.

So why doesn’t TAG – a magnet school designed for the brightest of the bright – get tossed from Newsweek’s list? Its SAT scores aren’t high enough. Schools with average reading and math scores of 1300 and above got the boot. TAG’s average in 2005 was 1239.

TAG’s students sit in the list’s sweet spot: bright enough to handle a ton of AP tests, but not so bright that they are removed from consideration.

Fifth: Ranking America’s high schools may be fun, but it’s a pointless exercise meant to sell magazines.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with selling magazines! Or newspapers, for that matter. Buy three copies of this one each morning, I say.)

Ever since U.S. News & World Report built a franchise around its annual ranking of America’s colleges, others have tried to follow suit. I’m sure Newsweek gets a nice bounce in newsstand sales when the list comes out each year.

It might be more honest for Newsweek to just publish the names of a bunch of great schools in alphabetical order. But that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it?

So instead, they provide the fake precision of a 1-to-1,322 ranking. Just as U.S. News needs to create the fiction that Yale, Harvard and Princeton actually swap ranks as the nation’s best university every dozen months.

TAG is a great school doing great things. Its students and teachers should be proud. It probably ranks among the best America has to offer.

But Newsweek’s rankings are awfully close to nonsense.

Verified on Po.et

June 12th 2018, 12:38