Principal demands perfection and gets it; Houston educator shows students’ poverty doesn’t preclude success

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One in an occasional series

HOUSTON – Mister Rogers and Nancy Blackwell have something in common.

Not long after her 6:45 a.m. arrival at Hambrick Middle School, where she’s principal, Ms. Blackwell switches shoes, from modest heels to sensible flats.

“You want to see what kind of principal you have? Look at her feet,” she said. “If she’s wearing heels all day, she’s not spending enough time walking from classroom to classroom.”

Parents lucky enough to have their kids at Hambrick don’t have to ask what kind of principal they have. Ms. Blackwell, 52, would appear on just about anyone’s short list of Texas’ best school leaders.

“Nothing goes unnoticed by her in this building,” math teacher Kristal Soukup said. “She’s everywhere at once. It’s almost spooky.”

In the early 1990s, she turned Worsham Elementary from a middling school into one of the state’s top performers. Then she brought Hambrick from the doldrums to its spot as perhaps the state’s best middle school.

Last year, 99.3 percent of Hambrick’s students passed the state math test. And the success cut across all student groups: The passing rates for black, white, Hispanic and poor students were all above 98 percent. That’s despite the fact that more than three-quarters of its students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“Nancy is highly focused on results,” said Jean Rutherford, director of educator initiatives for Just for the Kids, an education nonprofit group that has studied Hambrick. “She knows how important those results are going to be to the future of the students she serves.”

Hambrick’s accomplishments are particularly remarkable because middle schools always have been among the most difficult to improve. The burgeoning hormones of adolescents and their awkward position between elementary and high school have often meant weaker results.

This year, more than 1,100 elementary schools received an “exemplary” rating, the state’s highest. Hambrick was one of the fewer than 200 middle schools that did.

“Middle school kids are just plain weird,” Ms. Blackwell said. “Their common sense goes on vacation for a few years. Things that are funny to them aren’t funny to anyone else in America.”

‘No more excuses’

Hambrick, which is in the Aldine school district despite its Houston address just south of Bush Intercontinental Airport, was struggling when Ms. Blackwell arrived in 1996.

“We were the laughingstock of Aldine,” said Winifred Bellido, a math teacher who has been at Hambrick since 1986. “We had the lowest scores. We made excuses: ‘Our kids can’t learn because they don’t know English.’ ‘Our kids can’t learn because they’re low income.’ When she arrived, there were no more excuses.”

Although there are a few prosperous pockets a few miles from the campus, Hambrick works with a largely disadvantaged population. Ninety-three percent of its 1,100 seventh- and eighth-graders are minority, and many are recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.

“The poverty is really something,” said Ms. Blackwell, a purposeful, compact woman who rarely stays in one spot for long. “You go to some of these apartments and you don’t want to sit down. Filth everywhere, roaches everywhere, no flooring. Some of my kids don’t have electricity.”

In some ways, the changes she brought to Hambrick are similar to the changes the Texas accountability system has brought to the entire state. She demanded higher expectations. She wanted more centralized control of curriculum matters. And she wanted regular testing of kids to find weaknesses and quickly snuff them out.

“You go to some schools and ask the principal something and he’ll say, ‘Oh, my department chair handles that,'” Ms. Blackwell said. “But a lot of times they don’t know what’s going on.”

Her first task was improving discipline. There was some gang activity on campus, and the administration didn’t have a firm grip on students’ activities. “The kids were really in control of the school,” she said.

Quickly, she removed all the school’s lockers to make hallways wider and make the time between classes less chaotic. She eliminated all the bells between classes to create a calmer atmosphere. Later, she added a strict dress code and metal detectors at school entrances.

There were little details, too. Lunch periods now end with a few minutes of mandatory silence so students are calm when they head back to class.

Longer class periods

Once students’ behavior was in check, Ms. Blackwell turned to academics. She doubled the amount of time students spend in math and language arts and trained teachers how to make use of the longer class periods.

In every academic subject, students take six “checkpoint” tests a year – locally designed exams linked to state curriculum standards. If the eighth-grade social studies Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test includes a section on the development of the American economic system, so does the checkpoint.

“People say, ‘You’re teaching to the test,'” Ms. Blackwell said. “But that test covers the state curriculum, and if you’re not teaching it, you’re not doing your job. Every skill on that test is something a child needs to know. It’s purposeful.”

If a child shows weakness in math or language arts, the amount of time she spends in that class will be doubled again, to more than three hours a day. She can also be put in mandatory tutoring before or after school.

“We never waste a minute – it’s always time for learning,” said Ms. Soukup, who spends an hour each morning and 90 minutes every afternoon tutoring.

The attention is highly individualized. Kids who struggle are given forms to carry around all day for their teachers to fill out, verifying that a student showed up to class on time, paid attention in class and completed his assignments. Those forms end up on Ms. Blackwell’s desk, like so many things at Hambrick. When she wanders the halls, it’s clear she already knows the names of many of her 500-plus seventh-graders, even though school’s only a few weeks old.

“She makes it her business to know the strengths and weaknesses of every student,” said Matt Roark, a social studies teacher. “She knows what they need to learn.”

That attention has turned into results. Ms. Soukup, for instance, hasn’t had a kid fail the math TAAS test in six years. “And there are plenty of us with that sort of record,” she said.

When Ms. Blackwell arrived, not everyone was willing to go along with her higher expectations. About a quarter of the school’s teachers left in each of her first two years, she said.

“That’s what hurts me: when you don’t get 100 percent buy-in for helping these kids,” she said.

Some left voluntarily, others less so. Looking at test scores quickly identified which math and language arts teachers were effective and which needed help – or needed to be shown the door.

“She’s a little bit ruthless, and that’s important,” Ms. Bellido said. “Other principals are afraid to weed out teachers who aren’t doing their job. If you’re not performing, she’ll do all she can to help you. But if you’re still not doing your job, you won’t be here next year.”

Parents involved

Initially, even some parents didn’t like the changes. Across the street from Hambrick is a long line of rundown apartment buildings, with peeling paint and rotting wooden walls. Not long after her arrival, Ms. Blackwell noticed people moving out to go to other schools because of her changes.

What a difference a few years makes. Teacher turnover has now dropped to about 5 percent a year, Ms. Blackwell said. Now the biggest enrollment problems are the parents who fake addresses in the school’s attendance zone so their kids can attend Hambrick. The open house at the start of this school year attracted more than 1,200 parents. Ten years ago, it might have drawn 300.

“This school didn’t have a very good reputation before. I almost didn’t want to send her here when she was younger,” said Reba Cutten, mother of eighth-grader Brittani. “When Ms. Blackwell came in, it was a total turnaround.”

The reputation has also reached the students.

“Our teachers last year told us they were very, very strict at Hambrick,” said Ronald Lynch, a seventh-grader. “Strict with grades, dress code, conduct. I was nervous. But I like it a lot.”

“The teachers tell you: ‘We expect you to pass this test. We believe in you,'” said Loren Guillory, an eighth-grader.

The Hambrick method takes an enormous amount of work, from the principal down to the teaching corps. Ms. Blackwell routinely works 12-hour days or longer, and teachers arrive early and leave late.

Staff development

In turn, Ms. Blackwell said the school typically spends twice as much time on staff development as most schools. Much of the training is actually designed for teachers of the gifted and talented.

Teachers also help distribute the pressure by working across subject areas. Math teachers include writing in their classes. History teachers include science.

One language arts teacher dissects a pig every year in class when the class reads A Day No Pigs Would Die. In turn, the class’ science teacher turns up the reading content of her lessons.

It extends all the way to P.E. class, where one day a week is set aside for writing. Posted on the gym wall are the results of one recent assignment to make a muscle-themed simile: “His abdominals are like six tennis balls,” and “His gluteus muscles are as small as two lemons.”

“I talk to the math teachers, the science teachers, the reading teachers and say, ‘What do you need help on?'” said gym teacher Janie Rodriguez.

Leadership turnover

The lesson Ms. Blackwell tries to impart is that there shouldn’t be any excuses for failure. She has a CEO’s impatience for poor results, in her own school and in others around the state.

“Schools that are still just rated ‘acceptable’ – that’s terrible!” she said. “That’s a very low standard. There shouldn’t be any excuses for not getting beyond acceptable.”

Ask anyone in the school why Hambrick has been successful and they point first to Ms. Blackwell. But any time a school’s success is so closely identified with one individual, it raises red flags for some. After all, principals switch jobs or retire all the time.

“I’m a strong believer that education can’t rest on a single individual,” said Dr. Rutherford, herself the former principal of Highland Park High School. “We already know we’re not going to find a superhuman principal for every school building. We’ve got to build an entire system that supports education.”

Already, three of Ms. Blackwell’s assistant principals have been drawn away for principal jobs elsewhere in the district. She said she’d be surprised if her current assistants weren’t lured away soon.

District officials are considering asking Ms. Blackwell to move over to Aldine MacArthur High School, where Hambrick’s students go after eighth grade. MacArthur’s current principal is headed to retirement.

Ms. Blackwell says she wants to stay at Hambrick. But district officials know they need to be able to build beyond her.

“By far, the question I do the most soul searching over is leadership turnover,” said Margarita Byrum, Aldine’s area superintendent over Hambrick. “We know the school principal is the person who makes or breaks the program. The gains we have here are never solid. They’re always fragile.”

But some teachers believe the improvements at Hambrick have become rooted enough that it would be difficult to undo them.

“We wouldn’t put up with less,” Ms. Bellido said. “If some slouch principal came in here, there would be a riot.

“There’s no excuse for other schools. It’s hard work, sure, but you love it. Because it works.”

They’re not your everyday schools; A Fridays-off schedule cuts costs and motivates, some districts say

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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MIDLAND, La. – It sounds like a school calendar Ferris Bueller would dream up: every Friday’s a day off.

At Midland High School, in this remote outpost of the south Louisiana prairie, it’s reality. And proponents in several states say it might be a way to score a rare educational double play: raising student performance while cutting costs.

“The morale among the students and teachers is much better now,” said Clyde Briley, Midland’s principal. “They like coming to school more, so they try harder.”

Four-day weeks are popular in rural areas of Texas’ neighboring states, such as Louisiana and New Mexico. But don’t look for it to become popular here; the way Texas funds schools makes it virtually impossible barring a change in state law.

The idea doesn’t seem logical at first: decreasing days in school at a time when some districts are pushing toward year-round calendars. But more than 100 school districts say it gets students more motivated in the limited time they have.

Four-day school weeks are typically a response to financial troubles. They first appeared in rural districts during the 1970s energy crunch, as schools looked for ways to limit heating, air conditioning and transportation costs.

Because they can cover large geographic areas, rural schools typically have higher transportation costs. Small districts are often faced with declining tax bases or pressure to consolidate with neighboring districts, and any way to cut costs is welcome.

In Colorado, where the shortened school week is most popular, more than 40 of the state’s 178 school districts take an extra day off. Most have fewer than 400 students spread over a wide area.

In a typical four-day schedule, a school day lasts an hour or two longer. Proponents say it allows for longer stretches of uninterrupted class time and gets students and teachers more focused on the day’s lessons. Absenteeism drops because parents can plan doctor’s appointments and trips for Fridays.

When a four-day week is proposed, the first criticism is often a basic one: “What do the kids do on Friday?”

“I tell them: ‘They do the same thing they do during the summer, or during Thanksgiving week, or on holidays,'” said James Farris, principal of Estherwood Elementary, one of three Midland High feeder schools that has also switched to four-day weeks. “Parents figure something out.”

Best in rural areas

The calendar works best in rural, established communities, where there are likely to be aunts, grandparents and others who can watch children on days off, he said. Some kids work on the family farm on days off. Other high schoolers have started baby-sitting businesses and watch younger children.

“It was a concern when we moved to the four-day, but I haven’t gotten a single complaint from a parent once it’s gotten started,” Mr. Briley said.

Midland, part of the Acadia Parish school district, is one of several Louisiana schools to have moved to the four-day schedule in the last few years. But its reasons were more academic than financial, and school officials say they’re cautiously optimistic that it’s working.

“We have good kids,” Mr. Briley said. “They’re good students, and we weren’t doing poorly before. It’s just that you could see a lack of motivation in them, an apathy. We wanted them to try harder, and kids wanted an immediate reward.”

So along with the usual longer school days, Midland added a new wrinkle: If students fail a class during any grading period, they’re required to come in three hours on Fridays for small-group instruction. Teachers are paid $25 an hour for those Friday sessions.

When a student has a disciplinary problem, he or she is made to work around campus on Friday instead of being suspended.

“Our grass on campus doesn’t look so good right now, but when they start coming in on Fridays, it’ll look a lot better,” Mr. Briley joked.

That change created a strong incentive for students to raise their grades, and Mr. Briley said the increased effort has been obvious. The number of failing grades has been cut in half, and the school’s average grade-point average increased from 2.41 to 2.87.

Because of the extra money paid to teachers for Friday classes — and because the school still runs buses on Fridays — Acadia Parish officials say the four-day week doesn’t save money over a standard schedule.

But students, to no one’s surprise, love having Fridays off.

“I’ve seen improvements in myself and my friends” with the new calendar, said Shelby Manceaux, a 19-year-old senior who Mr. Briley said was at risk of failing but has recovered to make the honor roll. “You can barely tell the days are longer, and you want to work harder to get Fridays off.”

Recruiting tool

A four-day week can also be a way for rural schools to attract teachers despite the typically lower salaries they offer. Having every Friday off can be a potent pitch.

“It makes you value the time you do have in the classroom and do a better job of planning your lesson,” said Deborah Guagliardo, an English teacher and librarian.

The question is, what impact can a four-day week have on student achievement and test scores? Little research has been done in the area, and drawing conclusions has typically been hampered by the small size of the schools.

“I think we can say that at least it doesn’t hurt student achievement,” said Gary Sibigtroth, Colorado’s assistant education commissioner. “What we don’t know is if it helps.”

Mr. Sibigtroth is the former superintendent of the East Grand school district, the largest in Colorado to have a four-day week. But at only 1,100 students, few would confuse it with Dallas or Houston schools.

Midland recently found out how its students performed on Louisiana’s standardized test. The percentage of its eighth-graders performing satisfactorily increased from 51 to 63 percent – well ahead of the parish as a whole. Tenth-grade math scores also went up, but English scores dropped.

Of the three four-day elementary schools, one improved significantly, one dropped slightly, and one stayed about the same.

But parish officials say they don’t want to draw any conclusions from just one year of data – particularly when dealing with such small sample sizes. At the elementary schools, there are typically fewer than 30 students in each grade.

If a Texas school wanted to follow Midland’s model, it would run into difficulty. There’s nothing in Texas law that requires schools to have a five-day week. But in practice, the school funding law makes the option impossible.

Texas schools receive state funding based on average attendance per day, including Fridays – more students attending on more days means more funding. So a school that converted to a four-day week would be sacrificing 20 percent of its state funding.

Officials say schools expecting a cure for all their ills will need to look at options far more extensive than a four-day week.

“I don’t know if there’s anything magical about how you organize your school day,” said Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. “You still have to have well-qualified teachers in the classroom, good, strong administrative leadership and commitment from the community in order to have a good school system.”

Students take TAKS for test drive; Their performance will help determine passing scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Bone-chilling excitement! Nerve-shattering suspense!

It’s the blockbuster thriller of the school year, the TAKS test — and it’s now playing in select classrooms near you.

Across Texas this week, 118,000 students are taking an advance version of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state’s new standardized test. The early reviews are mixed.

“When it was over, the kids said, ‘That was hard! I’m tired!'” said Donna Rother, principal of Scott Johnson Middle School in McKinney. “But I feel good about the test. It’ll raise the standards of what we expect from our kids.”

State officials will be watching how students perform on the field test. Although the TAKS has been in development since 1999, it’s still unknown what score students will have to get on it to pass.

The State Board of Education will set that standard in November, using performance on this week’s tests as a guide.

“We’ll be able to bring the results before the board and say ‘This is how everyone did,’ so they can make the decision,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology.

Only a fraction of the state’s 4 million students will be tested this week, including some at 268 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although the schools have to give up class time to give the test, some find it a worthwhile trade-off for a sneak preview.

“At first, we were worried about missing a day of instruction,” said Ms. Rother, who administered the seventh-grade reading test to a small group of students Tuesday. “But we realized our kids will be some of the few in the state that will have experience taking the test. And our teachers will be some of the few with experience administering it.”

The TAKS is expected to be significantly harder than its predecessor, the retired Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Starting in 2004, public schools will be rated based on how many of their students pass the TAKS.

Schools were told to give the test sometime this week, which means students will be taking it as late as Friday.

“We administered it just like we would the real McCoy,” said Kathy Kazanski, principal of Christie Elementary School in Frisco, which administered the Spanish version of TAKS to fourth-graders Tuesday.

This week’s tests are also a chance for schools to see some of the new test formats the TAKS will introduce. For example, students will be allowed to use a dictionary or a calculator on some parts of the test but not on others. Portions of the test booklets are fastened shut when the dictionaries are out.

This is the second time Texas students get a peek at the TAKS. In the spring, the Texas Education Agency gave sample TAKS questions to most Texas students of testing age.

But that round was designed mainly to judge the quality of potential test questions, not how students performed on them. Questions that proved inappropriately tricky or that appeared biased against a certain demographic group were tossed aside. Dr. Smisko said she did not know how many questions made the cut.

Like that last round of field tests, schools and students won’t be able to find out how they performed on this week’s tests. There will be no penalties or rewards for performance.

School defies labels; Frazier Elementary’s poor minority students excel in face of adversity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One in an occasional series

Students who enroll at Julia C. Frazier Elementary check their last names at the door. All day, they wear their teachers’ last names like adopted kids.

“We treat them like our own kids,” said third-grade teacher Leslie City. “We tell them, ‘From 8 to 3, your last name is City. I’m your mama. I’ll love you and teach you and protect you.

“At the end of the day, you can get your last name back.”

It’s that kind of personal bond between teacher and student that has helped Frazier become one of the state’s greatest education success stories.

Conventional wisdom holds that race and poverty go a long way toward determining how a child performs in school. If you’re white and live in the suburbs, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re black and poor, there’s not much anyone can do to help.

Julia C. Frazier Elementary, next to one of Dallas’ most run-down housing projects, has turned that wisdom on its head. Its student body is 94 percent black, 100 percent minority and 98 percent poor. But Frazier students somehow outperform many of their wealthier, suburban peers across Texas. A third-grader at Frazier is, on average, more likely to pass the TAAS test than one in Plano.

“If you don’t have clean clothes for your child, I’ll wash what you have or find you some new ones,” said Rachel George, principal of the South Dallas school. “If you don’t have school supplies, I’ll get them for you. If you can’t wake your child up early in the morning, she can sleep at my house.

“The idea is to get rid of all the excuses so children can come here and learn.”

‘No child left behind’

Frazier’s success – it has been rated exemplary by the state two years running – draws on a number of factors. It has unique support from a nearby preschool and a corporate giant. It has teachers who view their work with a missionary zeal. And it uses data and individual attention to ensure that students’ weaknesses are targeted early and forcefully.

“Everybody’s saying ‘no child left behind’ nowadays,” said Ms. George, Dallas’ current principal of the year. “We’ve been living that for years.”

The success at Frazier begins before children arrive at the 72-year-old brick schoolhouse. At age 3, future Frazier Lions enroll at the Margaret Cone Head Start Center, a preschool a few blocks from campus.

Texas Instruments opened the Cone Center in 1990 as part of a philanthropic effort. The idea: Provide health care and social services to the poorest of the poor, and they’ll be as ready for kindergarten as rich kids.

It didn’t work.

“We weren’t really preparing these kids for kindergarten,” said Ann Minnis, director of the TI Foundation, which has committed $3 million to Frazier and the Cone Center since 1990. “We found that 20 to 30 percent of these kids were in the bottom 1 percent of the U.S. when they entered Cone. We realized we needed to focus on getting them ready academically, not just with services.”

In 1993, TI asked Nell Carvell of Southern Methodist University to assemble a pre-reading program for Cone. Her Language Enrichment Activities Program boosted test scores immediately; it’s now promoted as a model for Head Start programs across the country. Kids who spend two years at the Cone Center “are right there with Highland Park kids” on test scores, Ms. Minnis said.

The work done with 4-year-olds at Cone translates into higher performance at Frazier as those children get older. “You can definitely see the difference between the Cone kids and the others when they get here,” said Emily Jenkins, a kindergarten teacher. “The Cone kids are ready to learn to read the day they get here. They know their colors, their numbers. The other kids are half a year behind.”

But the connection isn’t as direct as one might think. Because Frazier draws its students largely from housing projects, its students move around a lot. About half of kindergartners went to the Cone Center. By the time they’re ready to take the TAAS in third grade, only about a third of Frazier students are Cone

Still, Cone’s presence has an impact even on the kids who didn’t attend its programs.

“We have different expectations for children here because of Cone,” Ms. Jenkins said. “Having these strong kids means we raise the bar for everybody else. Cone sets the expectations.”

Order amid chaos

If you have stereotyped expectations of urban schools, you’ll toss them aside after a visit to Frazier. First, it’s quiet: Frazier is more orderly than many suburban elementary schools. When it’s time for lunch, kids line up peacefully in the sparkling-clean halls, dressed in their blue and white uniforms; there’s no chaos in the classroom.

That’s a contrast to the surrounding neighborhood, which Ms. George acknowledges “can be rough.” Across the street is the 60-year-old Frazier Courts housing project, a complex so dilapidated that the Dallas Housing Authority wants to tear it down and rebuild it from scratch. Weeds grow next to rusty clothesline poles. Shirtless men wander around, apparently intoxicated, at 11 a.m. Teachers view getting their cars broken into as a risk of the job.

Many of the school’s parents are not far removed from school age themselves. Many have troubles far greater than the TAAS test.

“We have a 29-year-old grandmother here,” Ms. George said. “Some of our parents have substance problems, or they’re not home a lot for a variety of reasons.”

Because of the environment, Frazier staffers are more active in their students’ home lives. If a mom doesn’t return a phone call from Ms. George, the principal will be on her doorstep soon enough. “I wait until school lets out, grab a buddy teacher, and follow the child when he walks home,” she said.

Parents appreciate the staff’s dedication and discipline. “The teachers here don’t let the students run over them,” said Nakita Walker, mother of first-grader Davonte. “They keep control of things. They care about if your kid gets home safe. It’s a real good school.”

It’s not uncommon to see the principal or teachers walking through neighborhood, knocking on doors and meeting people.

“We have to get them to trust us, or else they’ll find ways to fight us,” Ms. George said.

Like many successful schools, Frazier is a big believer in diagnostic testing. Students are given standardized tests – some nationally known, some created by the school – several times a year. The data they generate are immediately distributed to teachers, who know precisely their students’ weak areas.

By the time they reach third grade, those weaknesses are rare. Last year, 97.6 percent of Frazier’s students – all but one child – passed the reading TAAS test. In math, the number was 97.7 percent – again, only one child failed.

Teachers in every grade meet several times a week to discuss their students, what skills they’re having trouble mastering and how best to help them. The lowest achievers are placed into special reading classes for one-to-one help.

The individual attention lets students know an adult is deeply interested in their progress.

“Once kids find out their teachers care, they’ll do anything to please them,” Ms. George said.

This kind of attention is easier in a small school such as Frazier, which has only about 230 students. (Unlike many Dallas elementary schools that go up to sixth grade, Frazier stops at grade 3.) The personal involvement means that teaching at Frazier can be stressful. Long hours, normal for teachers anywhere, can be particularly long at Frazier.

“When the day’s over, we stay here for a while and tell jokes because we don’t want to be driving on the highway when we’re all stressed,” said Ms. George, who is in her sixth year as principal.

But the teachers say the family environment led by Ms. George draws them together. They support one another in everything from curriculum to discipline. The result is stability and little teacher turnover. Last year, the school had only two openings for teachers, both caused by long-time teachers retiring. “They’ll have to drag me away from here,” Ms. Jenkins said.

The staff members at Frazier use words like “calling” and “mission” to describe their work, and there’s an almost religious devotion.

“I consider this a ministry,” Ms. George said. “These kids were given to us to do something with. When you go to bed at night, you better be sure you’ve done all you can.”

We were correct (even though it was math)

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Yes, the answer really was 7.

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News featured the TAAS question missed by the most sophomores (64 percent) on last spring’s test. Lots of readers e-mailed to say we’d gotten it wrong. We didn’t.

Unlike the testmasters in Austin, we’ll give you another try. (And a HINT: See italics.)

“Rachel’s house is 12 miles due west of Highway Exit 16B. Keitha’s house is due north of the same exit. The two houses are 13 miles apart. How much farther does Rachel live from Exit 16B than Keitha does?”

The choices: 11, 10, 7 or 5 miles, or “none of the above.”

— Joshua Benton

a + b = a tough question on TAAS

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Ever wonder how hard the dreaded TAAS test really is?

State officials announced last week how students fared on individual test questions. The one missed by the most sophomores (64 percent) last spring:

“Rachel’s house is 12 miles due west of Highway Exit 16B. Keitha’s house is due north of the same exit. The two houses are 13 miles apart. How much farther does Rachel live from Exit 16B than Keitha does?”

The choices: 11, 10, 7 or 5 miles, or the dreaded “none of the above.”

The answer: 7 miles. Only 36 percent got it right; 5 miles was the most popular answer.

— Joshua Benton