Big test lies ahead for Texas schools; State: 30% may fall short of new standards, face federal sanctions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Thirty percent of Texas schools – more than 2,000 in all – will fail to meet tough new testing standards and could face federal sanctions if they don’t quickly improve, state officials said Thursday.

“It will be a challenge for our schools,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

On Thursday, the state announced its proposed definition of “adequate yearly progress,” a term likely to become as common as “exemplary,” “recognized” and “low-performing” in education circles during the next few years.

Adequate yearly progress, or AYP, is the term used in No Child Left Behind, the federal education act signed into law by President Bush last January. The law requires all 50 states to define the term; if schools or districts fail to meet AYP’s standards, sanctions kick in over time.

In a proposal sent to federal officials Thursday, the state announced that schools would have to have 46.8 percent of their students pass the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading test to make adequate yearly progress. Schools also must have 33.4 percent of students pass the TAKS math test.

Those numbers may not seem ambitious after years of high passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the test phased out last year. So why do state officials predict that so many schools will fail to meet the standard?

First, the TAKS test will be significantly harder than the TAAS, which tested only basic skills, authorities say.

More crucially, the old TAAS-based accountability system looked at the performance of all students in a school and students falling into several subgroups: blacks, whites, Hispanics and poor students. If a school’s test scores were below the defined standard in any one of those subgroups, its rating was lowered.

AYP adds two categories to that list: special education students and students who have problems reading and writing English. Those students typically have more trouble passing standardized tests. Under AYP, all it takes for a school to fall short is for one subgroup to fall short.

In addition, the state will use two other factors to determine whether a school reaches the bar: its graduation rate (for high schools) and its attendance rate (for elementary and middle schools). Those standards have not been determined. Also, schools must test nearly all their students – 95 percent, including special education students – to make the grade.

In all, the TEA predicts that 2,089 of the state’s 6,950 schools would have failed to make adequate yearly progress last year under the existing definition. In addition, 285 of the 1,040 school districts in Texas would have fallen short.

There are consequences for not making AYP. If a school fails for two straight years, it must allow its students to transfer to any other school in its district – and pay for the daily transportation cost of getting students there.

After three straight years, it must take some of its federal funding and give it to students to spend on after-school tutoring, weekend classes or other private academic help.

Sanctions build from there: After seven years, the school can be taken over by the state, be turned into a charter school or be shut down and reopened with a new staff.

Districts also face sanctions. After a district misses adequate yearly progress four years, the state may move schools from one district to another, withhold state money, appoint a new superintendent or abolish the district.

And making AYP will get harder as time goes on. First, the state will make it more difficult to pass the TAKS over the next two years by raising the number of questions students will have to answer correctly to pass.

Then, in 2006, the passing rates required to make AYP will increase by about 10 percentage points. They’ll continue to increase every few years until 2014, when a 100 percent passing rate will be required to make adequate yearly progress – thus the law’s name, No Child Left Behind.

Schools will have to make remarkable progress over the next few years to avoid falling under the new standard. It’s likely that many schools that have been rated highly in the state’s accountability system will face the consequences of missing AYP.

“The AYP list will not be an exact mirror of the list of low-performing schools we’ve produced in the past,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

As of late Thursday, most Texas school superintendents hadn’t heard about the new standards. A top Dallas Independent School District administrator received them late in the day. Superintendent Mike Moses said he couldn’t yet judge the impact on the district.

“I just hope there’s been a lot of input allowed from educators,” Dr. Moses said.

One thing is certain: Parents, teachers and administrators will be confused.

AYP and the federal law are kicking in at the same time Texas is moving to the TAKS test – and at the same time as the state completely rebuilds its own accountability system.

AYP ratings are distinct from the traditional ratings Texans have gotten used to: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing. State officials are redefining the ratings system this year and will announce new standards in December.

“There’s going to be so much happening – a new test, a new state accountability system, AYP – that we want to give people a chance to figure out how it works,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The federal AYP calculation is expected to be a factor in those ratings, but how hasn’t been determined.

If anything, AYP reality could be worse than what the state predicts. The state’s projections are based on TAAS scores from 2002. But schools had been taking the TAAS for more than a decade; scores typically dip substantially in the first year of an unfamiliar new test such as the TAKS.

In addition, once the cutoffs for graduation rates and attendance rates are determined, they will probably drag more schools below the bar.

There are many details in the state’s plan to be worked out, and state officials said they will accept public comment on their proposals over the next several months.

Texas was facing a Friday deadline to submit its proposal to U.S. Department of Education officials. Federal and state officials will negotiate over the plan over the coming months; the final plan is due to be revealed in May.

“It could be confusing for the public if there are two accountability systems running at the same time,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “We will try to mesh those together as best we can.”

It’s Grusendorf’s time to make the grade; No longer the maverick, Arlington lawmaker poised to lead education panel

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

When Kent Grusendorf first ran for the State Board of Education in 1982, he was an outsider, lobbing criticism into the education establishment.

Now he is the establishment.

The things he has pushed for ? a strong accountability system for schools, less power for teachers, more autonomy for school districts ? have largely become reality.

“When I was running for the state board, I was deemed pretty radical at the time,” he said. “Now those ideas are mainstream.”

Thursday, the Arlington lawmaker is expected to be named chairman of the Texas House’s public education committee, one of the state’s most powerful posts in setting rules for schools. It’s his first real taste of leadership after years in the minority.

For his fellow conservatives, his new role is validation for the many battles they have fought and won over the last two decades. For his opponents, it puts the state’s education gains at risk.

In addition to defending education financing in a severe budget crunch, Mr. Grusendorf will push for a pilot voucher program that would allow parents to spend tax dollars on private school tuition. He also wants to end the state’s minimum teacher salary, one of several ideas teacher groups will oppose.

“Public education is a powder keg in this session, in no small part because of Mr. Grusendorf’s agenda,” said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that opposes social conservatives. “He’s one of the more ideologically driven members of the Texas House.”

Mr. Grusendorf doesn’t shrink from being called a conservative.

“I’m a proud Ronald Reagan Republican,” he said.

Mr. Grusendorf grew up in Waco ? his ritual morning Dr Peppers are evidence of that ? and moved to Arlington to attend Arlington State College on a band scholarship. (He played French horn.) Not long after graduation in the mid-’60s, he started his own business supplying fasteners and other hardware to the aerospace industry.

“I’ve been on my own ever since,” he said.

His interest in education issues began in the late 1970s, when he started arguing that Texas schools were teaching history and economics from too liberal a perspective.

At first, he argued his point through an Arlington Rotary Club and the local chamber.

“I wanted to promote free enterprise in education,” he said. “I had no intention of getting involved in politics. It was pure accident.”

After becoming active in local Republican circles, he was approached to run for a seat on the State Board of Education in 1982. He served two years before the board was converted from an elected body to an appointed one. (It has reverted to elections.)

In 1986, he ran for the legislative seat he has held since. From the moment he arrived, education has been his focus.

“It’s the future of society,” he said.

He has been remarkably consistent, pushing for strong systems of school accountability and testing. He has lobbied for alternative certification programs that let people become teachers without going through four years of training. He also advocated giving local school districts more autonomy.

Over time, much of that agenda has gained bipartisan support and become reality.

“He’s a good conservative who believes in local control and accountability,” said Geraldine Miller, a member of the State Board of Education. “I always admired his commitment to education.”

He has also pushed to make Texas’ educational system more transparent, through things such as the release of test scores. When he was first elected to the state board, he asked an official at the Texas Education Agency whether he could see how Arlington-area schools had performed on the state’s standardized tests.

The reply? “Oh, no! That’s confidential!”

“The establishment was very protective of itself,” he said. “They didn’t want the public to see how things worked.”

Now, of course, you don’t have to be a state board member to see a school’s test scores ? you can read the newspaper, watch TV or go online to find out.

Mr. Grusendorf hasn’t been completely successful in getting his ideas passed. As a Republican, he has been in the House minority, which has limited his influence at times.

“When I was a freshman legislator [in 1991], Kent was one of the regular dissenters on the public education committee,” said Paul Sadler, the Henderson Democrat who chaired the committee for the last three sessions but did not run for re-election. “I didn’t always agree with what he philosophically agreed with. But from that day until today, 12 years later, I have never questioned his integrity or his passion for education.”

Now, as the likely chairman, Mr. Grusendorf will have more chances to influence legislation. For example, in previous sessions he pushed for school vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools at public expense. He’ll try again to get a pilot voucher program passed this year.

“We’re working for the children, not the special interests,” he said.

When Mr. Grusendorf says “special interests,” he often means teacher groups, perhaps his most regular foil.

“Teachers still have a lot of power in Texas,” Mr. Grusendorf said. “It’s amazing when you sit in an education committee meeting ? you’ve got all these special interests sitting there.”

In 1988, he made headlines for criticizing a state teacher evaluation system, calling it a “dismal failure” and a “joke” because it protected incompetent teachers. Only about 500 of the state’s 175,000 teachers that year were rated less than satisfactory.

Three years ago, he founded the Texas Education Reform Caucus, a group that, among other things, makes recommendations before each legislative session. Among the changes the caucus is advocating this session:

– Giving school districts more freedom to discipline and fire teachers.

– Allowing districts to ignore the state teacher salary schedule. State law requires districts to pay starting teachers a minimum of $24,240 a year.

– Allowing any adult with a bachelor’s degree who can pass a standardized test to be certified as a teacher.

– Giving any school rated “recognized” or “exemplary” the same flexibility that charter schools have, including the ability to hire uncertified teachers.

The idea behind all the measures is to give local districts maximum flexibility. Teacher groups would typically back none of them.

“When we saw those recommendations, we were fairly chagrined,” said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “We’ve got some clear differences. But he’s fervent in his beliefs, which is what makes him a formidable opponent when you’re on the other side.”

Despite their many differences with Mr. Grusendorf, some teacher groups say they’re willing to work with Mr. Grusendorf. He often agrees with them on the need for better mentoring programs for first-year teachers and on tighter discipline in classrooms. And they say he will fight for education when it comes to financial issues.

“We hear a commitment from Kent to put adequate money into education, as long as we don’t back off of standards,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who has worked with the representative on the reform caucus’s activities. “My view of Kent has changed dramatically. In the past, we perceived him as a little bit hostile to teachers. That’s not really the case.”

Mr. Grusendorf predicted that, even with a multibillion-dollar deficit looming, legislators will find money to increase funding for schools this session.

“We always find money for education, even when there’s no money to go around,” he said.

The question teacher groups have been asking themselves is how hard Mr. Grusendorf will push for his proposals, given his new authority.

“He has had this passion for education for a great many years,” Ms. Stone said. “It’s taken him a long time to get where he is. I think he plans to maximize his opportunity.”

“I don’t think we’re going to see a car-bombing of the public school system, or even a big change in the direction of the public school system.” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “I think Representative Grusendorf will have to compromise and move to the center to get things done, and I think he knows that.”

The committee’s outgoing chairman agreed. “Will he take the committee in a little different direction than I did? Probably so,” Mr. Sadler said. “I would expect that. Will that be detrimental? I seriously doubt it. I don’t have any question in my mind he’s going to do a good job.”

Wealthy but still in need?; Affluent Eanes ISD says state law puts schools in financial crisis

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

WEST LAKE HILLS, Texas – Begging doesn’t come easy to the men and women of the Eanes Independent School District.

The people of Eanes are doctors, lawyers, business people. Within the district’s boundaries reside many of the Austin area’s power elite. It’s one of Texas’ wealthiest school districts.

But now they’re passing the hat, asking for charity – because they say their schools are in a financial crisis.

“We’ll be sending out letters to the community in a few weeks, asking for donations,” said Jess Butler, Eanes’ superintendent. “It’s the most traditional fund-raiser of all – saying ‘Help!'”

Eanes officials, like those in an increasing number of suburban districts around the state, blame the Texas school-finance system for their difficulties. And they’re not optimistic that the current legislative session will bring much relief.

“We’re doing more than our fair share, and it’s time for the state to step up,” said trustee Ellen Balthazar.

But parents in other school districts might not see Eanes’ financial situation as a crisis. Even after sending away its revenue-sharing payment each year, Eanes still manages to spend more money on its students – more than $9,100 per pupil last year – than any other school district its size in Texas. The state average in 2001-02 was $6,913.

“I wish every school district could spend as much as we do now,” Dr. Butler said. “But that doesn’t mean Eanes should be forced to spend less. It’s criminal what the state is doing.”

Eanes is to Austin what Highland Park is to Dallas – the wealthy enclave whose mention is most likely to push other school districts into fits of envy. Unlike Highland Park, there is no city of Eanes. The district covers the small suburbs of West Lake Hills and Rollingwood, along with some parts of Austin proper.

The district takes pride in its students’ accomplishments, of which there are many. Its high school football team, Austin Westlake, is one of the state’s eternal powers, having won 12 straight district titles. Its band marched in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade. Each of its schools is rated exemplary by the state’s rating system.

“It’s the central bonding agent for our entire community,” said Rollingwood Mayor Thom Farrell, whose three children have all attended Eanes schools.

But officials say the school finance system could change all that. The system, instituted in 1993, requires the state’s wealthiest school districts to redistribute a portion of their tax revenues to poorer districts. As a district’s property values go up, so does the amount of money it has to give up, which is known as its recapture payment.

Over the last eight years, Eanes’ property-tax revenues have nearly tripled – from $31.8 million in 1994-95 to an estimated $90.8 million this year. But the district’s recapture payments have increased in that time from $2.6 million to $51 million. This year, for the first time, Eanes will have to send away more money than it will get to keep.

“I’ve been in other schools that have nicer things than we do, but we give all that money away,” said Kate Cippele, a junior at Westlake High. “I don’t think that’s really fair.”

For five straight years, Eanes dealt with the increased recapture by raising taxes. But last year, its main property-tax rate hit $1.50 per $100 of assessed value – the highest that state law allows it to go. The cuts began.

At first, they were small – less money for teacher supplies, reductions in central office staff, no more Spanish for elementary students.

‘People are worried’

But next year, if spending levels stay at their current levels, Eanes will face a deficit of about $8 million.

That’s the equivalent of 144 jobs within the district, or about 15 percent of the total workforce.

“People are worried about whether they’ll have jobs or not,” said Karen Linder, a kindergarten teacher at Forest Trail Elementary. “It’s depressing to come to work.”

“It’s not going to be any fun to be a school board member this year,” said trustee Robert Durkee.

To keep the cuts from being too deep, the district is thinking up ways to generate more money: starting a for-profit day-care service, selling advertising space on school buses or the aforementioned requests for donations.

“I don’t know if people will give, but if the schools mean enough to them, I hope they will,” Mr. Farrell said.

The goal of the school finance system, dubbed “Robin Hood” by critics, is to equalize spending between the state’s school districts. But even with the large sums it sends away to poorer schools, Eanes still manages to outspend all of its peers.

Part of that is caused by a recent bond package voters approved to renovate several schools. But even after removing the bond package and just looking at classroom spending, Eanes still spends about 17 percent more per pupil than average – and more than any of the state’s other 100 largest school districts.

And, remarkably, that gap has grown over the last decade. In 1993, the first year of the revenue-sharing system, Eanes spent only 14 percent more than the average Texas school district.

To put it another way: If every school district in Texas spent as much on its students as Eanes does, it would cost taxpayers an additional $9.3 billion a year.

“It’s difficult for us to complain about not offering French or German when schools in the Valley worry about turning on the air conditioning when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Mr. Durkee said.

District officials acknowledge that they spend more than other districts, but they make no apologies. They say the extras are essential: more school nurses, more counselors, clerical aides for teachers and smaller class sizes.

They also point to their outstanding test scores and say the spending has gotten results.

“I don’t view those sorts of things as optional or just enrichment,” Dr. Butler said. “Those things are essential, but we’re looking at cutting them.”

Desire to be the best

Eanes is running into one of the most difficult problems of the current school-funding system. It is designed to increase equity between the rich and poor and, to a large degree, it’s succeeded. But equity isn’t always the top goal of suburban parents.

“We have an attitude here of having the best, being the best,” Dr. Butler said. “Our parents won’t stand for just an adequate education.”

“I think our children are getting a good education now,” said Nancy Morgan, mother of three Eanes students. “But it shouldn’t be all on our backs. The state needs to do more.”

Dr. Butler, a former consultant to both rich and poor districts, has been studying the Texas school-finance system for decades. He’s even written a short book on the subject: Schools Circling the Drain, an odd allegory featuring characters named Dan Druff (a school board member), Kay Oss (the business manager) and Gill O. Teen (the school auditor).

He said that when he talks to superintendents in other districts, they tell him, “Jess, you’re cutting programs we never had.” To which he replies, “They should be able to have all those programs if they want to, even in poor districts. If they want an orchestra program, they should be able to have one. Every child in Texas ought to be able to have the sort of education a child in Eanes receives.”

That can’t be done, he said, without a major infusion of new money. That’s why, he said, he supports a state income tax and higher state spending on education.

But it seems Dr. Butler is unlikely to get his wish, at least in the short term. Legislators, many elected on a “no new taxes” pledge, are facing a $9.9 billion deficit in the current session. Most observers doubt there’ll be much if any new money available for education in the next state budget.

So Eanes will keep searching its budget for fat, or at least whatever muscle it feels it can spare, preparing for life a little closer to average.

“It’s just tragic,” said Ms. Balthazar, the school trustee, “that the state is tearing apart its best schools.”

Cheap Date: This date serves up burgers, games

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1C

A wise man once said it’s better to be insulted at the start of a date than the end.

So we start our evening out at Goff’s, the famed burger joint on Lovers Lane. Proprietor Harvey Gough has made a decades-long shtick out of being nasty to his customers. Alas, on the night we try out this Cheap Date, Harvey is nowhere to be found, but the staff makes up for it by ordering us to have the Deal (a combination burger/hot dog) for me, the Saladburger for her.

While the silverware may not meet your standards – “That fork’s been here 20 years,” the guy behind the counter points out – the beef’s divine. And where else in Dallas can you dine 10 feet from a statue of Lenin?

A key Goff’s feature of note to Cheap Date aficionados: The cup you’re handed when you ask for the free water comes filled with crushed ice, not the lesser huge cubes of other establishments. And the foot-operated water fountain is always available for rapid refills.

Next, we head up to Carrollton to Nickel Mania, one of several nickel arcades in the area. For less than nine bucks, you get admission for two and 100 nickels to dump into arcade games you’ll remember from the 1970s. Sure, some of the games are only a half-notch above Pong – but since when is that a bad thing?

WARNING: You may feel intense shame if your date whups up on you in every game.

INSIDER HINT: Play Spider Stompin’ on the easy setting if you want to earn tons of tickets. Then turn those tickets into kitsch. I am now the owner of a blue apple-shaped pinky ring, a plastic green scorpion and one eye patch deemed “sexy” by my companion.

A quick hop down the Tollway back to Lovers Lane brings you to The Lounge, the bar attached to the Inwood Theatre. Aside from a cozy atmosphere and well-poured drinks, The Lounge offers an evening bonus. From the seats at a pair of two-seat tables in the back room, you can peer into the Inwood’s ground-floor theater and watch whatever movie is playing. (And since it’s the arty Inwood, the fact you can’t hear the movie usually doesn’t matter – you can read the subtitles.)

ONE PIECE OF ADVICE: Check the movie listings before setting out. The night we go, the midnight film is Flesh Gordon, the 1970s soft-porn classic. The Dallas Morning News cannot be held responsible for your date’s reaction.

The Bottom Line

WHAT: Burgers, nickel games and movie spies.

WHERE:

Goff’s, 5702 Lovers Lane, Dallas, 214-351-3336. Burgers with a side of venom.

Nickel Mania, 2661 Midway, Carrollton, 972-713-9500. When you can’t spare a quarter.

The Lounge, 5458 Lovers Lane, Dallas, 214-350-7834. Drinks and movie hijinks.

THE TAB: $28.65

THE SCORE: Worth your spare change.

Universities want to set their own tuition; Opponents fear huge cost jump if Legislature gives up rate-setting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Texas’ universities believe there are plenty of parents who could afford to write bigger tuition checks every semester. Now they want the power to tap into that wealth.

The state’s top education officials are asking the Legislature to give up its traditional power to set tuition rates at all the state’s universities. They want university system leaders to be able to set their own rates – something opponents fear will lead to big jumps in what students pay.

“If you totally deregulate tuition, I’d be hard pressed to explain to anyone how public universities would be any different from SMU,” said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

The idea, which proponents call tuition deregulation, has attracted some prominent supporters, including Gov. Rick Perry and likely House Speaker Tom Craddick. Both the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System have made tuition deregulation one of their top priorities for the upcoming session.

“Once you get past all the heat and get to the light, we’re talking about autonomy,” said Charles Miller, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents. “If we don’t have it, we don’t have the ability to run our institutions effectively.”

For decades, the Legislature has set base tuition rates – currently $44 per credit hour – during each of its biennial sessions. Universities and their system regents have more flexibility in setting other fees and costs, which typically more than double the total cost of attendance.

Without the ability to set pricing, universities can’t efficiently use their resources, Mr. Miller said. For instance, if a university wants to draw more students into unpopular afternoon classes, it might charge lower tuition for them. Lowered tuition for summer school classes might increase enrollment and get more students through the system more quickly.

On the flip side, classes in expensive fields like engineering might have a higher sticker price. When deregulation has been tried elsewhere, it has often led to substantial increases in tuition.

“Deregulation is a way for universities to offset the fact that legislatures are cutting higher ed funding,” said Carl Krueger, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. “But the disadvantage is that students will wind up paying much higher tuition.”

“It’s scary,” said Forrest Wilder, a University of Texas senior who plans to lobby against the idea. “College isn’t unaffordable now, but it will be soon if it keeps going up.”

Mr. Krueger said the closest analog to what Texas is proposing may be in Canada, where several provinces are deregulating tuition for professional and graduate schools.

“At the University of Toronto, law school tuition used to be $4,000 or $5,000,” said David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Professors. “Now it’s jumping to $22,000.”

He pointed to studies that indicated fewer Canadian college students with below-average incomes were getting degrees after deregulation.

UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof has made a counteroffer on that point. He has said that, if given the power to set tuition, the system will offer free tuition and fees to any student whose family income is below the state median – about $41,000 a year.

The plan: If UT can raise tuition, wealthy families who can afford it will pay more. Some of the extra money generated can be put to greater financial aid for poor and middle-class students.

“You’ve got to optimize the system and make sure the right people are paying the right prices,” Mr. Miller said. “Parents might say to their child, ‘If you go to Texas, I’ll buy you an SUV with the money I save from you not going somewhere else.’ Well, maybe they’ll drive a Toyota if tuition is higher.”

Mr. Ogden, who co-chaired a joint legislative commission that studied the issue last year, said he’s hesitant to deregulate. But he said he will support an experiment: deregulating only summer school tuition rates.

“I think the Legislature has an obligation to control what state institutions charge the citizens of this state,” he said.

Ten states give legislatures the power to set tuition. In other states, the responsibility generally rests on a state coordinating board, a system governing board, or the college itself.

Both sides agree that the state’s current budget problems will play a role in the Legislature’s discussion of the issue. With a multibillion-dollar deficit, legislators may be happy to shift more funding responsibility to the colleges themselves.

Tuition rates have been increasing steadily, even with the Legislature setting the rates. The cost of attending a Texas four-year college has increased 63 percent in the last decade, according to a study released last year by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That’s the fourth highest rate of increase in the country.

But even with those jumps, Texas schools remain a comparative bargain. The annual cost to attend a Texas school is $2,841, that study said – more than $500 less than the national average.

“I’m always open to new ideas, but I want to make sure that middle-class and low-income students have the access to higher education,” said Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin.

Texas schools: average? Report on education policies critical; state disputes some points

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 19A

Texas schools don’t deserve a spot on any honor roll, according to a new report that rates the state’s education system as downright average.

As in previous years, the state got middling grades in the annual Quality Counts report, which attempts to judge the education policies of 50 states and the District of Columbia, report card-style.

The final tally for Texas: one B-minus, two C-pluses, a C, and a D-plus.

“We do not grade on a curve,” said Susan Ansell, a research associate who helped assemble the report.

Quality Counts is released each year by Education Week, a newspaper based outside Washington, D.C. The report rates the states in five areas: standards and accountability; efforts to improve teacher quality; school climate; and both the adequacy and equity of school funding.

In each category, states gain or lose points based on whether they’ve enacted specific policies. For instance, in the teacher quality category, Texas gained points because it uses test scores to identify weak teacher training programs at state universities. But it lost points because it doesn’t create financial incentives for teachers to earn an elite national certification.

“Texas tends to be a little bit ahead of the pack in some things, like targeting efforts to improve teacher quality in high-need schools,” said Melissa McCabe, another research associate at Education Week who worked on the report. “We look at an extensive set of research to determine what’s effective practice, what’s best for student achievement.”

Among the other things that cost Texas in the ratings:

*Not having external experts go over the state’s standardized tests to make sure they align with the state’s educational standards.

*Not requiring prospective teachers to pass a basic-skills test before being certified. Texas educators must pass tests in their teaching fields, but they’re not screened for basic skills.

*Not regularly surveying teachers, parents and students about school conditions.

Of course, not everyone agrees on what the right policies are. Texas officials, for example, say the state suffers in the ratings because many education policies are left up to local school districts, not dictated by the state. Since many of the scoring elements in Quality Counts’ report require state mandates, Texas doesn’t score as well.

“Quality Counts penalizes states that believe in local decision-making,” said Adrienne Sobolak, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

The grades aren’t all that different from last year’s: The state’s grade-point average remains a lowly 2.1, right where it was in 2002.

The state nudged up slightly in the two school finance categories and dropped in standards and accountability.

That might seem surprising, since state officials such as Gov. Rick Perry routinely use words like “failed” to describe Texas’ school finance system – while the Texas accountability system is often held up as a national model.

“Some of the information is not exactly accurate in relationship to what’s happening in the state of Texas today,” Ms. Sobolak said. “A lot of educational experts around the nation consistently rank Texas and North Carolina as having the best accountability systems in the country. Here, they’re ranked below places like Louisiana. There are different ways to look at it.”