If you want ivy, Greenhill’s the place to grow

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Hey, ambitious parents! Want to make sure your child has a shot at finding his way inside the ivy walls of Yale, Harvard or Princeton? Send him to Greenhill School.

According to a new study by Worth magazine, the Addison private campus is the nation’s 37th best “feeder school” to the three elite Ivies. Over the last four years, 7.75 percent of Greenhill grads have landed at one of them.

Greenhill’s performance ranked it ahead of many powerhouse prep schools in the Northeast, such as New Jersey’s Lawrenceville and Washington’s Georgetown Day.

The other ranked Texas schools were Houston’s St. John’s (31) and Dallas’ St. Mark’s (100). Private schools dominated; six of the list’s top 100 were public.

— Joshua Benton

Texas students boost passing rate in algebra; State level at 60%; English test scores dive amid math push

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 31A

Texas students are continuing to recover from their traditional weakness in algebra, according to a new set of test scores released Friday.

The statewide passing rate jumped from 51 to 60 percent for students who took the Algebra I end-of-course exam in the spring. That’s the biggest one-year increase in the history of the tests, which may be in their last year.

“Schools that are weak in algebra have been told they need to be putting effort into the subject,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s working.”

End-of-course exams are given in four high school courses: Algebra I, Biology, English II and U.S. history. Unlike the more familiar Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the end-of-course exams aren’t given at a specific grade. Students take them as soon as they’ve completed a particular course, whether freshmen or seniors.

English II scores took a tumble, with the passing rate falling from 75 to 69 percent. The other two tests were largely stable: biology’s passing rate stayed at 80 percent for the second straight year; U.S. history dipped 1 point, to 74 percent.

Of all the tests, Algebra I has always been the one to draw the most attention, primarily because its scores have always been the lowest of the four. When the Algebra I test was first given in spring 1996, only 27 percent of students passed, including 10 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics. The rate of passing has grown steadily ever since, including a 6-point gain last year.

When scores were lower, state officials blamed a shortage of fully certified math teachers. Last year, according to a Texas A&M study, the percentage of high school math teachers who are fully certified increased from 74 to 77 percent, but it’s unclear if the numbers will continue to rise.

Other than algebra, passing rates on the end-of-course tests have tended to rise more slowly than TAAS scores. Biology passing rates, for example, have increased only 9 percentage points in the last seven years.

English passing rates have dropped 9 points in the last two years.

“Algebra has been the test everyone has worried about,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “I think English has suffered because schools have put more emphasis on the difficulties in math and paid less attention to other subjects.”

The first end-of-course exams were launched in 1994, partly in response to criticism that the TAAS tests didn’t do enough to test high school students. The TAAS was given in every grade from third to eighth, but only once in high school, at 10th grade. Critics said the passing standards on the high school TAAS were too low, and they only tested skills in reading, writing and math.

But the TAAS is being retired this year, and in 2003, its replacement will debut: the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAKS. The new test will be given in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. All the subjects currently tested in end-of-course exams will be included in the high school TAKS tests.

As a result, this probably was the last time the end-of-course exams will be given in Texas. Ms. Ratcliffe said a final decision hasn’t been made, but the TAKS probably will make the older tests expendable.

She said some do favor keeping the algebra test for several more years, however, as an independent way of tracking math performance.

Bleaker dropout picture painted; Federal figures almost quadruple state’s estimation of problem

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Federal officials have estimated the size of Texas’ dropout problem for the first time and say it’s almost quadruple what the state says.

Five percent of Texas high school students dropped out in the 1999-2000 school year, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Texas Education Agency says the dropout rate that year was 1.3 percent.

The gap between the two agencies fuels a long-standing criticism of the state: that its way of counting dropouts artificially lessens the apparent size of the problem.

“The state number just misleads the public,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

“It lets people think, ‘Yeah, we have a dropout problem, but it’s small enough that I can live with it.’ They shrug it off. But the truth isn’t livable.”

The National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, calculated annual dropout rates for the 100 largest school districts in America. It found rates of 6.3 percent in Dallas and 9 percent in Fort Worth. The state’s official dropout rates for the two districts are 1.2 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

What’s unusual about the two calculations is that they’re based on the same data. Both rely on the same dropout-tracking system that districts use to gather information about those who quit school.

“They took our numbers, but they crunched them using their own definition,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.

There are two big differences in the way the rates are calculated. First, the federal definition looks at only high school students. The TEA also includes seventh- and eighth-graders in the calculation. Because only a small number of those younger students drop out, their inclusion makes the dropout rate smaller.

The other difference covers students who say they plan to pursue a General Educational Development certificate after dropping out. If they say they will, the TEA doesn’t count them as dropouts. The national center counts them as dropouts unless they earn a GED within a year of quitting school.

Because it used a different definition from the federal government, the TEA was never able to report the state’s dropout data to the national center in a form it could use. This was the first year it did so, which is why this is the first year the federal government reported a Texas dropout rate.

Texas is not alone in using a different definition. The national center calculates dropout rates for only 36 states and the District of Columbia. Of those, Texas ranked 24th in 1999-2000. It had by far the most dropouts of any state, with more than 54,000, but that’s because other large states such as California, Florida and New York did not report data.

The new federal numbers are in line with the findings of a study conducted for The Dallas Morning News last year by Just for the Kids. That study said 20 percent of students entering Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate, or roughly 5 percent per year.

“I think the NCES definition is closer to what people think when they think of a dropout,” said Chrys Dougherty, director of research at Just for the Kids, a nonprofit education research organization based in Austin.

State officials acknowledge the complaints about the state’s methodology, and they say the system is being changed. In 2004, when the state institutes its new accountability system, it will no longer use the annual dropout rate in setting school ratings. Instead, it will use a calculation called a completion rate, which
looks only at high school and tracks students over four or more years.

“We’re willing to listen to anyone who can suggest ways for us to improve the way we count and try to prevent dropouts,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Those trying to bring attention to the dropout problem have long been stymied by the many different ways to calculate a rate. In the numbers-driven world of education, it can be difficult to rally support for solving a problem without an agreed-upon way to measure it.

“I would bet every dollar that I have in my bank account that the real dropout rate in Texas is even higher than the NCES number,” said Dr. Smink of Clemson, who said he thinks more than 30 percent of Texas students drop out over the four years of high school.

State officials say Texas has a dropout problem, no matter what definition or calculation one uses.

“I’m not interested in how the number is figured. I know there’s a problem,” Gov. Rick Perry said in April.

Some of the most surprising numbers in the federal report involved Houston, which state statistics say had a 3.2 percent annual dropout rate in 1999-2000. The federal report said the rate was 11.2 percent.

If those numbers are representative of Houston’s dropout problem, about four out of every 10 entering freshmen drop out over the course of high school.

Houston also had a 12th-grade dropout rate of 24.6 percent – the highest of any of the 100 largest school districts in the country. Houston officials said they could not explain the high rate for seniors and were checking the data.

A bottle of pop, a crispy taco and thou; The challenge was to have a fun time on 30 bucks or less – and, boy, did we bingo!

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1C

Looking for some cheap thrills?

Thirty dollars can buy you and a date a whole day’s worth of them with a little imagination. And Texas Living is here to help with a new feature: Cheap Date, which will appear occasionally on Saturdays.

We’ll send our resident thrill seekers on a date that won’t leave them living on bologna sandwiches the rest of the week. Typically, the date will include food and as much entertainment as $30 can buy.

They’ll report back on the success of their date, detailing what they did and how much elements of the event cost.

Armed with their discoveries, we hope readers will find that a night out doesn’t have to set you back a day’s pay.

Feeling lucky

You know it’s been a good date if, at night’s end, you find yourself thinking: “Bingo!”

Well, why not get the magic word out of the way earlier in the evening? Start your Cheap Date at North Dallas Bingo. The warehouse setting provides endless people-watching opportunities – albeit a different sort than on Greenville or in Addison.

For a mere $6, you get an hour of B-12s and G-53s. At first, you’ll think the game requires only luck, not skill. But watch out, or you’ll end up promptly disqualified for marking up your cards incorrectly. Not that we’d know.

The crowd’s a bit younger than you’d imagine, and you’ll have great fun inventing “Behind the Music”-style back stories for your fellow patrons. And if you get thirsty, the water fountain’s free!

Alas, the bingo gods do not smile upon us, and we walk out without winnings. But keeping with the competitive theme, dinner is a Battle of the Taco Stands. We head up Gaston to my favorite, La Parrillada, and sample the walk-up carnitas. They’re nicely spiced at a buck a pop. We snag, appropriately, Mexican beverages – a Jarritos Mandarina soda and Topo Chico mineral water – at the convenience store next door.

My date prefers the work of Tacos Y Mas at Greenville and Ross. I won’t be swayed from my partisan fave, but I’ll admit her spot makes a nice meaty taco. Although, at $1.25 a piece, they’re downright pricey – that extra quarter can make all the difference on a Cheap Date.

Grab a beer at Ship’s Lounge across the street, then end the evening with one thing everyone can agree on … gelato from Paciugo in the West Village. A schmear of black cherry swirl could bring peace to the Middle East.

Have you gone on a fun Cheap Date lately? Give us your tips on where to go, what to try. Write Texas Living/Cheap Date, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265, fax 214-977-8321 or e-mail texasliving@dallasnews.com.

The Bottom Line
WHAT: Bingo mania and tacos at war
WHERE:
North Dallas Bingo, 7940 N. Central Expy., 214-360-9393. Now with video bingo!
La Parrillada, 7260 Gaston Ave., 214-327-5513. Best use of a dollar in Dallas.
Tacos Y Mas, 5419 Ross Ave., 214-824-8079. Just try to find better tacos in an Eckerd’s parking lot.
Ship’s Lounge, 1613 Greenville Ave., 214-823-0315. Insider hint: A pack of cards is free at the bar.
Paciugo, 3699 McKinney Ave., 214-219-2665. Completely calorie-free. Seriously.
THE TAB: $23.24
THE SCORE: Bingo!

School choice with a hitch; Students may transfer from failing sites, but state hasn’t issued list

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

If your child is stuck in a failing school, a new federal law is supposed to give him a way out this fall: the right to transfer to any better school in your district.

So that parents would have time to plan a switch, states across the country notified them months ago about which schools were eligible.

But Texas still hasn’t told parents, and they won’t for a few more weeks – after the new school year has already started for many kids.

The result: Parents who want to take advantage of the new law may have to uproot their children during the school year.

“We understand parents’ frustration,” said Adrienne Sobolak, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “We want to make sure the list is accurate before we release it.”

The school choice provision was included in the No Child Left Behind Act, the massive education bill President Bush signed into law in January. Most of the provisions don’t kick in for several years. The right to transfer schools this fall is one of the first visible signs of its impact.

In Texas, a school had to be rated low-performing for two consecutive years to make the list of failing campuses. Schools then stay on the list until they’ve been rated acceptable – the next notch up – or better for two straight years.

By that standard, seven North Texas schools are likely to be tagged with the label. Six are in the Dallas school district: Silberstein, Buckner, Henderson, Hernandez and Sam Houston elementaries and Buckner Academy. The seventh is Kennedy-Curry Middle School in Wilmer-Hutchins.

But schools won’t know for sure until at least Aug. 23. That’s when TEA officials say they hope to publish a list of eligible schools on the Web. Even then, officials say, the list might not be final.

DISD starts the fall semester Aug. 26, Wilmer-Hutchins on Aug. 20. Most area districts start Aug. 19.

“It’s hard for parents to take advantage of public school choice if they don’t know the options that are available to them,” said Allan Parker, head of the Texas Justice Foundation, a pro-school-choice group in San Antonio.

The standardized test scores that largely determine which schools are low-performing were available to the TEA in May. But state officials waited until last week to announce school ratings so the data could be more closely evaluated. And after the ratings are announced, schools have two weeks to file appeals – which is what pushes back the list’s release.

“It’s a new program for us,” Ms. Sobolak said. “We’re encouraging parents not to wait for the list. If you’re interested in a transfer, go talk to your school and see what other options might be available.”

The delay might also put Texas in violation of federal rules. A federal rule that has been preliminarily adopted by the U.S. Department of Education requires a state to identify failing schools before the start of the school year. The rule is expected to take effect within a month.

Federal officials have estimated that about 8,600 of the nation’s 92,000 public schools will have to offer transfers. Schools get on the failing-schools list by failing to make “adequate yearly progress” for two straight years. Adequate yearly progress is the federal standard to judge whether a school is successfully educating its students.

Each state gets to define this standard in its own way, and as a result, there’s wide variation on how many schools make the list in each state. Michigan and California, for example, each had more than 1,000 schools on the list, but Arkansas had none.

Other public-school choice mechanisms already exist in Texas. Most prominent is the Public Education Grant program, which allows students in bad schools to transfer to schools in neighboring school districts. Because their definitions overlap, all students eligible for a No Child Left Behind transfer are also eligible for a PEG transfer.

But the new federal transfers are more useful than PEG in several ways. Most important, students transferring through the federal program are guaranteed transportation to and from their new schools. PEG students are on their own regarding transportation.

PEG does allow for a broader range of transfers because it theoretically allows students to transfer from one district to another – say, from a bad Dallas school to a good Plano school. But under PEG, good districts are free to claim they’re overcrowded and close their door to any incoming students.

Fewer than 200 Texas students used a Public Education Grant last year, despite the fact more than 141,000 were eligible.

The federal program says schools can’t close their doors to transfers unless it would cause a health or safety code violation.

Most states released their lists of eligible schools months ago. Some of them might wish they’d followed Texas’ lead and proceeded more slowly.

Ohio, for example, issued its list of eligible schools last month, only to find out miscalculations had put more than 200 schools on the list incorrectly. “In our zeal to get the information out, it turned out it was erroneous,” Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Dottie Howe said.

Edu-speak: Schools’ alphabet soup

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 10H

Confused by the alphabet soup of acronyms educators throw around? Don’t know your M&O from your I&S, your TAAS from your TAKS from your TEKS? We’re here to clear up your confusion (well, some of it):

ADD, ADHD: Attention deficit disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The conditions that often make parents consider putting children on Ritalin.

AEIS: Academic Excellence Indicator System. AEIS reports (available online) pull together all sorts of data on schools and school districts. They mostly include test scores, but AEIS reports give parents a way to figure out how their school is doing.

AP, IB: Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs. Both offer high-level academic work for motivated high school students. In Texas, AP courses are more common.

ARD: Admission, Review and Dismissal. An ARD committee is the body that determines what sort of educational environment a special education student will be placed in.

ATPE, TCTA, TFT, TSTA: The four major statewide teacher organizations. The Texas Federation of Teachers and the Texas State Teachers Association are affiliated with national teachers unions; the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Classroom Teachers Association aren’t.

EOC: The End-of-Course Exams, state tests given to students taking algebra, U.S. history, English II and biology. But 2002 was the last year for the EOCs; their material will be covered in the new TAKS (see below).

ESC: Education Service Centers, the 20 offices around the state that link the TEA to school districts.

ESEA, a.k.a. NCLB: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal education law. It’s renewed about once a decade. President Bush signed the latest version into law in January; his office calls it “No Child Left Behind.”

ExCET: Examination for the Certification of Educators in Texas, the state test new teachers must pass to become certified. This fall, it’s being replaced by a new test called the Texas Examination of Educator Standards (TExES).

FERPA: The Family Education Rights & Privacy Act, the federal legislation that keeps most student records private.

GED: The General Educational Development exam. The alternative to a standard high school diploma.

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal legislation dealing with special education. Its major goal is to put as many special-ed kids in regular schools as possible.

IEP: Individual Educational Plan. It’s the plan put forth by teachers, parents and counselors to educate a special-education student.

LEP, ESL: LEP students have low English proficiency. They’re often put into English as a Second Language classes.

M&O, I&S: The two parts of the property tax you pay for schools: one for maintenance and operations and one for the interest and sinking fund, which goes to pay off school bonds and other debt.

NAEP: The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a battery of federal standardized tests in eight subject areas.

PEG: The Public Education Grant, Texas’ limited public school choice program, which allows students in bad schools to transfer to a neighboring district. But those neighboring districts aren’t required to accept them.

PEIMS: Public Education Information Management System, the massive data collection system the state uses to track students and schools.

PPE: Per-pupil expenditure, how much your school district spends on each of its kids.

SAT, ACT: The two major exams that high school students take to be admitted into the colleges of their choice.

SBOE: State Board of Education. Its members are elected from 15 districts across the state.

SES: Socio-economic status.

SSI: The Student Success Initiative, also known as the end of social promotion. Starting in 2003, third-graders will have to pass the TAKS reading test to advance to the fourth grade. Some exceptions apply. In 2005, fifth-graders will also have to pass the reading and math TAKS to go to sixth grade. In 2008, the same will be true of eighth-graders.

TAAS: Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The state’s late, great standardized test. (R.I.P) It’s being replaced next year by the TAKS (see below).

TABS, TEAMS: The easier predecessors to the TAAS, given in the 1980s.

TAG: Talented and gifted. Some call it GT instead, for “gifted/talented.”

TAKS: Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The new, more difficult TAAS.

TEA: The Texas Education Agency is the central bureaucracy that runs education at the state level.

TEKS: Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The state curriculum standards, which outline what Texas schools must teach. The similarly named TAKS test will judge how much of the TEKS students know.

UIL: University Interscholastic League, the state body that regulates high school extracurricular competitions.

WADA: Weighted average daily attendance. An adjusted count of how many students a school has. Used for some state funding formulas.

Texas students about to face a higher academic threshold; Educators brace for more failures under tough new TAKS test

By Joshua Benton and Terrence Stutz
Staff Writers

Page 1A

The last time Texas students had to adjust to a new state test, they stumbled.

It was 1990, and the outmoded Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills, or TEAMS, had just been put out to pasture. Its new, tougher replacement: an up-and-comer called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

Overnight, the statewide failure rate doubled.

Twelve years later, the TAAS is being retired. This spring, a new test – the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS – will debut. Not unexpectedly, some are worried about making the transition.

“It certainly has our attention,” said Robin Ryan, principal of Carroll High School in Southlake. “There’s no question the passing rates will decrease.”

The TAKS is the most prominent change Texas public school students and teachers will have to deal with this year, but it’s not the only one.

Among the other changes: the launching of a new initiative against social promotion; new rules promoting physical education in elementary schools; banning sales of junk food during certain parts of the school day; and a new health insurance program for teachers.

The new test, in development since 1999, will be the most visible.

“The timing was right to do this,” said Felipe Alanis, the state education commissioner. “We had maxed out on the TAAS.”

The TAAS was criticized as too basic, too easy to pass. It didn’t test higher-order thinking skills, critics said. The same complaints were levied against the TEAMS test when the TAAS was introduced.

The TAKS tests more subjects in more ways and in more depth than the TAAS. For example, the high school math TAKS will include elements of algebra and geometry for the first time, and some of the questions will require a written answer rather than a fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice.

The State Board of Education won’t set the test’s passing standard until November, so it’s impossible to predict how students will perform. The Texas Education Agency has tried to guess, using a rough calculation and last year’s TAAS data.

The results weren’t promising. They predicted that only 43 percent of Texas eighth-graders would have passed all sections of the TAKS this year, including less than one-third of minority students. Seventy-two percent of eighth-graders passed all sections of the TAAS.

Even top-notch schools are at risk. Carroll Middle School had nearly 99 percent of its eighth-graders pass all tests this year. The state projects that would be 81 percent under TAKS.

But some remain optimistic that schools will rally to the occasion.

“Texas is in the spotlight,” said Karen Neal, principal of Pearce High School in Richardson. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe most schools are going to do better than people expect.”

A grace period

The new test won’t have an immediate impact on school and district ratings. The state has decided to give districts a one-year pass, of sorts.

Their 2002 ratings, announced last week, will stick for two years as the state agency figures out how it wants to judge schools under the new system.

Students won’t get the same grace period. The impact of the change will fall squarely on the state’s 320,000 third-graders. For the first time, Texas will require students to pass an exam – in this case, the reading TAKS – to be promoted to the next grade.

“The new requirement is going to make a lot of people nervous,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “But you have to ask: ‘How can we allow these kids to go on to the fourth grade without knowing how to read?'”

Former Gov. George W. Bush called for an end to social promotion – passing students to the next grade even if their grades don’t warrant it – in his 1998 re-election campaign. He cited figures showing that as many as 90 percent of third-graders who failed the state’s reading exam were still being promoted to fourth grade.

Schools have been preparing this year’s crop of third-graders for the new standards since they entered kindergarten. Texas teachers have attended special training sessions to improve their instructional techniques, and students behind in reading have been given help.

But still, 13 percent of last year’s third-graders failed the TAAS, an easier test than they’ll take this year.

Critics: Stakes too high

This year’s third-graders had better get used to being on the vanguard of social-promotion reform. The new rule will be expanded to fifth and eighth grades in 2005 and 2008 – as soon as that group arrives.

The program has been controversial, particularly among some who say the stakes shouldn’t be so high for a new test that has never been given to Texas children.

Critics did win one concession: There will be an escape clause for students who fail the TAKS reading exam twice. Those students can still be promoted if they pass an alternative exam approved by the state or if the child’s principal, teacher and parents agree that the student should move to the fourth grade.

TEA officials will monitor the number of students who are promoted without passing a test to make sure there are no abuses in granting such exceptions.

For high-schoolers, the stakes aren’t as high – this year. The exit-level test, which must be passed for a student to graduate, is being moved from 10th to 11th grade. But this year’s juniors already took the exit-level TAAS last year, so they won’t be required to pass the harder test as well.

It’s unclear whether students, still holding onto the dying days of their vacation, are aware of the magnitude of changes coming this school year.

“Our kids are 15 and 16,” said Mr. Ryan, the Carroll principal. “It’s summer. The TAKS test is not foremost on their minds.”

Where to find data on your school: 3 sites provide it free

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 10H

It’s the question every parent wants answered: How good is my child’s school?

Unfortunately, the experts you might ask – the principal, for example – often have a vested interest in making things look as positive as possible. So parents look for objective sources, such as hard data.

Thankfully, data exists in abundance for public schools, and much of it is available free on the Internet. (Private school parents should ask their schools for any available data.)

The following Web sites offer more data than you can shake a No. 2 pencil at. The main source for all of it is the Texas Education Agency, the state’s central education authority. The first site belongs to the TEA itself; the two other sites massage data in ways that you might find more useful.

There’s an important caveat to remember about data, however: Test scores and other hard data can’t sum up everything about a school.

Some of the most important school factors won’t show through the streams of digits. Like anything else, there’s no real substitute for being there.

But if data’s what you want, here’s where to go and what to look for:

Academic Excellence Indicator System
www.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/aeis

The TEA gathers and crunches all sorts of data on schools, and AEIS is the easiest way to get it. Go to the Web site and drill down to the school or district that interests you. You’ll get one l-o-o-o-o-o-ng page with hundreds of numbers, including just about any conceivable variety of TAAS passing rate. Take a moment to look at it all, but here are a few things that might be of particular
interest:

Curious about how well the school helps struggling students? Look at the heading “Progress of Prior Year TAAS Failers.” That tells you how many students who fail the TAAS one year go on to pass it the next, and how much their scores went up. Compare the figures with the averages for the rest of the state; if your school’s numbers are lower, that could mean trouble.

Worried that a high school spends too much time “teaching to the test,” emphasizing questions on the state’s standardized tests? Check out how kids are doing on End-of-Course Exams, the statewide tests high-schoolers take after algebra I, biology, English II and U.S. history. There’s less pressure for schools to improve EOC test scores since they don’t count in accountability ratings. Therefore, they might be a more accurate reflection of how a school does outside the testing spotlight. Compare the performance to other schools or the state average.

Interested in how non-English speakers are doing in your district? Go to the section marked RPTE (Reading Proficiency Tests in English). Check to see how limited-English students progressed from year to year. If a high percentage move quickly from “beginning” or “intermediate” to “advanced,” that’s good. If not, watch out.

Concerned about your school’s dropout rate? Don’t look at the official state-reported dropout rates – they’ve been roundly criticized as hiding the size of the problem. For a better estimate, look at “Students By Grade.” Jot down the number of 12th-graders in the most recent year. Then check out eighth-grade
enrollment four years earlier. If there’s a big gap, it can be a clue to a problem. Another caveat: Factors such as changing attendance boundaries could also cause large gaps.

Want to see how well the school prepares students for college? Look under “TAAS/TASP Equiv.” That’s shorthand for how many of the school’s graduates did well enough on the TAAS that they’d have a 75 percent chance of passing TASP, the state pre-college test. Passing TASP means the student is ready for college work. Also, look at the percentage of students scoring above the state’s “criterion score” on college entrance exams: 1110 on the SAT, 24 on
the ACT.

Miscellaneous: Check teacher salaries – the best teachers are often lured to districts that pay more. Look at “Budgeted Operating Expenditure Per Pupil” to see how much money a school is spending per student. Compare that with how much is spent on instruction vs. administrative costs. Check class sizes, which you can compare from school to school.

Just for the Kids (JFTK)
www.just4kids.org

Just for the Kids is a nonprofit research group founded by Dallas attorney Tom Luce. It has struck a deal with the TEA that allows the group access to complete state records on students. That lets it push the data through a variety of algorithms, formulas and other things too complex for most of us to understand.

JFTK’s basic theory hangs on something called the opportunity gap. In stripped-down form, the idea is to measure the gap between how well a school performs and how well the best similar schools perform. A school whose enrollment is 95 percent poor, for instance, is measured against a school with a similar makeup. Ditto the school with almost no poor children.

You might find that your “exemplary” suburban high school, highly rated by the state, doesn’t fare as well in the JFTK model. Or you might find that an urban school ranked as “acceptable” by the state does well when compared with a similar school in Houston.

Unfortunately, the JFTK Web site can be confusing. But stick it out: The data you’ll find is usually worth the time spent clicking.

GreatSchools.net
www.dallasnews.com/greatschools

GreatSchools.net’s strength is pulling together data from disparate sources and making it intelligible to the average reader. It’s not nearly as ambitious as Just for the Kids; it’s mostly a well laid-out compendium of things you could find elsewhere, including the TEA and JFTK sites. (The group actually incorporates much of the JFTK opportunity gap data.)

In perhaps its most useful feature, the site allows you to input your home address and search for all public schools within a given distance. That can be useful if you’re looking to buy a home and trying to figure out which schools have the highest-performing students, the best paid teachers, or whatever else, in a given neighborhood.

Full disclosure: The Dallas Morning News has a business relationship with GreatSchools.net that allows the newspaper to include the data on its Web site – hence the address above.

Help is available for special-needs kids; Parents have important role in determining educational plans

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 6H

Navigating the bureaucracy of the public school system is difficult with any child, but it can be truly intimidating if your child has special needs.

The great news is that there’s plenty of help out there for you.

In 1975, Congress passed what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which defined a strong set of federal guarantees in special education. While regular education is largely left up to state and local officials, special ed is governed by an entirely different set of rules.

“Special ed has come a long way from what it was back in the 1960s when they had segregated schools,” said Sheila McComas, a special-needs teacher in Garland and mother of a child with cerebral palsy and mental retardation.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to ensure your child is getting proper help:

Services required

School districts are obligated to provide services for children with special needs from ages 3 to 21. If a child has vision or hearing problems, services begin at birth. For children under 3 with other needs, parents can call Early Childhood Intervention, a state agency based in Austin, at 1-800-250-2246 for free in-home services. The Web site is www.eci.state.tx.us.

Some special needs are obvious, such as physical disabilities and Down syndrome. Others, including pervasive development disorder (PDD) and autism, require testing. School districts provide testing on request for free. A child found to have a disability will be given an individualized education plan (IEP).

It’s important to know that being identified as having special needs doesn’t mean your child can’t be in regular classes. Special education can mean anything from occasional meetings with a speech therapist to a separate contained classroom. Parents have a large say in determining what direction the help takes.

Evaluating the plan

Once the child is in the special-needs system, there are regular admission, review and dismissal (ARD) evaluations. In these meetings, parents can discuss the appropriate therapy for the child and whether the goals for the child should change.

According to the law, if a school district cannot provide an appropriate education for a special-needs child, it is obligated to pay for the child to get those services in a private facility.

When the system fails

Special services are expensive. The average cost for special-needs children is $12,000 to $16,000 a year, compared with $6,500 to $7,000 for other children, education experts say. Sometimes parents want services that schools don’t think are needed.

Dissatisfied parents may seek help from companies that provide advocates for the children during negotiations with school districts. Students First, based in Frisco, charges a flat fee of $2,250 a year. Partner Assistance for Texans with Handicaps is a federally funded parent advocacy group that works with parents of special-needs children for free, although with less one-on-one attention.

As a special-ed parent, you also have federally guaranteed rights not available to other parents. For example, if you disagree with a school’s evaluation, you have the right to seek another opinion. In many cases, the school will pay for it. In most cases, you can appeal any decision of your school to a neutral hearing officer.

But state policy is aimed at keeping things as non-confrontational as possible, and officials will suggest using a nonbinding state mediator if disagreements arise.

Tests exist to gauge early performance; Reading inventory finds strengths, weaknesses in younger students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 11H

Once a child enters third grade in Texas, his parents get an objective, annual look at how he’s doing: the state standardized test. Tests have changed over the years – from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS – but since the 1980s there have been hard data to judge a child’s progress.

But what if your child isn’t yet in third grade? How do you know if she’s up to speed?

Fear not, there’s a test for you, too.

The TPRI – Texas Primary Reading Inventory – isn’t nearly as familiar as its relatives, partly because school districts don’t often advertise it to parents. Getting good details on how your child performed is probably up to you.

About 90 percent of Texas school districts give the TPRI to kindergartners and first- and second-graders. Texas law requires that K-2 students be given some sort of early reading assessment. Districts can give whatever exam they like, but the TPRI is by far the most popular.

State law requires that districts send home some information to parents on how their child performed. But what you get in the mail is often a bare-bones form letter; many parents just get a form marking a child as “developed” or “still developing” in one or two categories. What little detail there is comes with terms such as “Graphophonemic Knowledge” and “Phonemic Awareness.”

“I don’t think schools do enough to keep parents involved in how their kids are doing,” said Wes Hoover, president of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a nonprofit research organization in Austin. “My sense is that information is probably not very well distributed.”

For instance, talking to the teacher about the results might reveal that your child has more difficulty distinguishing sounds at the beginning of words than at the end, or that her vocabulary needs work. In Plano, for instance, teachers go over test results in parent conferences, detailing areas of weakness and how parents can help teachers fix them.

“You can find out specifically where the difficulties are and how you as a parent can help them – what you can do at home and what the teacher will be doing at school,” said Christie Duke, Plano’s coordinator of reading and language arts.

The TPRI has two sections: a quick screening section given to every child and a more detailed inventory section. The inventory section is designed to identify weaknesses in children having trouble. So if a student does well enough on the screening portion, teachers often skip the inventory portion altogether.

But valuable information can still be drawn from the inventory portion – even for strong students. It covers several areas the screening portion doesn’t, such as listening comprehension and reading fluency. As a result, some districts have decided to give the complete test to all students.

Be sure to ask how your district handles it, and consider asking for your child to be given the full test.

“The parents teachers respond to are the ones who make the effort to get involved,” Dr. Hoover said.

Many of the reading tests districts use are available for parents to administer on their own. Some, such as the Yopp-Singer Test, are free and available online; others cost $10 or $20. But while home testing can provide valuable information, Dr. Hoover cautioned against parents taking matters into their own hands.

“What parents don’t have that teachers do is the ability to compare their kids against other kids,” he said. “They can overreact when their child is a little behind in one area or another. They can help most by being supportive and coordinating with the teacher.”