Good, great? Scores will tell; New TAKS ratings show which districts excel or simply pass

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Fundamental Law of Test Scores: It all depends on how you look at them.

Starting soon in Texas, there’ll be a new way – a way that’s likely to make some parents view their suburban school districts in a more negative light.

“It’s easy for schools to have a false sense of security,” said Brad Lancaster, Allen’s assistant superintendent for learning services. “They say, ‘Hey, 97 percent of our kids passed the test.’ But if all their kids passed by just one or two questions, they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

This week, students across the state will take the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. And next month, the state will report how many students passed, as it has for previous tests. But for the first time, it also will report how many students got nearly all of the test questions right – “commended performance,” in the state’s lingo.

The new measure should help parents distinguish between the schools where students do truly exemplary work and those where they barely eke over the passing bar.

It’s a much higher standard than anything parents are used to hearing about. The TAAS was purely pass/fail and, over time, passing ceased to be a struggle for most students. Last year, 85 percent of students passed.

There was a recognition of top performance on TAAS: Students who answered 95 percent of its questions right had the words “Academic Recognition” written on their score reports. But the state never informed parents how their school or district fared as a whole on that high standard.

Answering about nine of every 10 questions correctly on the tougher TAKS test is an accomplishment worth recognizing, officials said. (The percentage required for commended status varies from test to test, from 83.3 to 95 percent.)

“Over time, the passing rate by itself lost its significance to high-achieving schools and districts,” said Brad Duggan, president of the Austin-based National Center for Educational Accountability.

“Schools began to focus on higher goals, and this new standard will help them identify areas of improvement.”

Taking another look

The tougher standard is also expected to expose broader performance gaps between districts.

For example, take the reading scores of third-graders. (Third-graders took the TAKS reading test last month and are the only TAKS scores the state has announced.)

Last year, passing rates in suburban Dallas school districts were mostly clumped within a few points of each other in the mid-90s – nearly every student passed.

But among those same districts, the percentage of students who were commended on TAKS this year varied widely. In Highland Park, for instance, 65.7 percent of students were commended. In Birdville, 29.6 percent were.

Look at the scores one way, and the two districts look almost identical. Look another way, and the gap is obvious.

“It lets us be in the same system as the entire state but set our own higher goals,” said Highland Park Superintendent Cathy Bryce, who said her goal is to have 100 percent of the district’s students commended.

Friendly competition

While district officials always insist that educating children is its own reward, they acknowledge that seeing higher test scores in other districts can get their competitive fires burning.

“You’ll always have people looking at similar districts and asking, ‘How are they achieving? Are we holding our own?'” said John Doughney, director of assessment and curriculum in Grapevine-Colleyville. “We certainly want to show the homeowners in our district they’re getting their money’s worth when they send their children to our schools.”

“Everybody in this business is always looking to see how the school next to you or the district next to you did,” said Dr. Lancaster, the Allen ISD official.

Texas, usually viewed as being on the vanguard of accountability reform, is lagging behind the rest of the country on this one. As of 2001, only 13 states still used only a simple pass/fail on one or more of their major state exams.

Texas was one of the only states to use it on its flagship test.

The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress almost two years ago, required states to create multiple score cutoffs on their tests. But officials said Texas would likely have moved to a commended-like system even without the federal push.

“It gives schools and even individual students something to shoot for,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology. “They can think, ‘Well, this year I passed, but next year I can shoot for commended.'”

More to be decided

Still to be determined is what role the commended cutoff will have in the state’s new school rating system, to be unveiled in November.

Officials said it’s likely that schools will have to have a certain percentage of students achieve commended status in order to get a high rating such as “exemplary.”

One of the benefits of the old pass/fail ways was its simplicity. It was easy for parents and teachers to understand. Now the people who use test scores in their everyday lives – such as real estate agents who tout homes and neighborhoods because of school district test scores – will have to find new ways to explain the numbers.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Michael Campbell, president of the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors. “We’re all going to have to relearn how we look at reporting student achievement.”

Support helps small-town district become ‘exemplary'; Bynum School teachers played role in changes

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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BYNUM, Texas — You can’t buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas in Bynum, population 225.

But, thanks to a core of teachers who demanded change a decade ago, you can get a good education.

“It’s amazing to see some of the things our kids can do with the right support,” said Polly Boyd, a former teacher who is now superintendent.

Bynum is one of only eight school districts in Texas to be rated “exemplary” for the last six years. It’s also evidence that high standards, hard-working teachers and individual attention can produce results in any school, anywhere.

“This school’s got a reputation for pushing you,” said senior Justin Elliott.

The town itself is just 20 blocks, boxed in by gravel alleys and cornfields. Ever since the liquor store shut down, the school district’s 84 square miles do not include a single store, unless you count the post office.

The closest town of any size is Hillsboro (pop. 8,232), the I-35 outlet mall capital. And for years, student dreams didn’t extend much further.

“These are poor kids,” Ms. Boyd said. “They’re great kids, but some of them probably have never seen an escalator.”

In the 1980s, Bynum School – the district’s one campus, holding students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade – didn’t do much to inspire optimism.

“Abbott a neighboring district was focused on academics and we weren’t,” said Edward Sumrall, the school’s counselor/speech teacher/golf coach. “The smart kids would go there.”

The district went through four superintendents in a five-year stretch; for a time, the Texas Education Agency posted a monitor in Bynum to make sure the administration was functioning properly. To save money, the school hired only first-year teachers and paid them the lowest salaries allowed by state law. As soon as they learned how to teach, they fled.

“People were saying, ‘Just shut it down, send our tax money somewhere else,'” Mr. Sumrall said.

Teachers speak up

In 1992, the school board was ready to search for yet another superintendent. But Ms. Boyd and a few other teachers were tired of the revolving door. They approached the board and asked that it not hire a superintendent. We know what this school needs, they said. Let us tackle Bynum’s problems.

“We told each other, ‘We’ve either got to find jobs someplace else or turn this around,'” said Ms. Boyd, the school’s principal at the time.

They asked for the ability to offer higher salaries. Once granted, they went on a recruiting spree, targeting experienced teachers in neighboring districts that paid the state minimum.

“We told everyone, ‘We’re going to make this the best little school in Texas,'” Ms. Boyd said.

Together, they searched other area districts for the best academic programs, putting a strong focus on reading. They put a new layer of paint on the run-down school building. Teachers began to view improving the school as a common cause.

“If you say something bad about our school, you’ll have 30 teachers down your neck in an instant,” said school board vice president Jack Tucker.

Researchers often argue on behalf of small schools, saying they create better learning environments than the thousands-strong throngs of some campuses. It’s impossible for a kid not to get individual attention at Bynum, which has only about 230 students from Bynum and neighboring towns.

“You can’t hide in the back of the room here – we know everything about everyone,” said Charlotte Anderson, the school’s principal/librarian/curriculum director/special education teacher. (In Bynum ISD, no one wears just one hat.)

Because of its size, Bynum has only one or two teachers in each subject. Students often have the same teacher in each subject from sixth grade on. On a campus of solid teachers, the star everyone points to is Sara Dubose. For nine years, she has taught math from seventh grade to graduation.

She has a unique style. When the class approaches a new concept, Ms. Dubose explains it only generally. “I want a slight feeling of discomfort,” she said. “Your mind has to grab at the concept if you’re going to really understand it.”

Students then work a problem set in class. As soon as they’ve completed the set’s first four problems, they raise their hands. Ms. Dubose comes over and checks their work immediately.

“They get instant feedback,” she said. “If they’re not understanding something, you find out what the problem is right away. They’re not going to get by without learning how to answer these questions.”

Seventh-graders sometimes react negatively to Ms. Dubose’s methods, unsure how to respond. But once they see the results, they come around. And since she’ll be teaching them for the next six years, difficult adjustments only happen once.

“She’s awesome,” said junior Stephanie Reece, who wants to be a doctor. “I came here not knowing a thing about math, and now I’m awesome at it.”

After a few years with Ms. Dubose, it’s not unusual for special education students to get A’s in precalculus. Last year, the statewide passing rate for the Algebra I end-of-course exam was about 60 percent. In Bynum, it was 100 percent. (Bynum had perfect passing rates on all four of the state’s end-of-course exams last year – algebra, biology, U.S. history and English.)

Growing confidence

With that kind of success comes confidence – a key element for a student body of farmers’ sons and daughters, some of whom might not know their full capabilities.

“We have parents who say, ‘Well, I wasn’t good at math, so I don’t expect my child to be good at math,'” Ms. Dubose said. “We’ve got to show them what they can do.”

A decade ago, perhaps one or two Bynum graduates might enroll in college each year – usually nothing farther away than Hill College, the two-year school in Hillsboro.

In last year’s graduating class, 20 of the 21 students went on to college. (The other one entered the military.) Fifteen of them graduated with the state’s tougher “recommended” or “distinguished” diploma – a rate more than double the state average.

Ten of the 21 students had already earned college credit by the time they left Bynum, thanks to a dual-enrollment plan with Hill College.

Every once in a while, people still talk about consolidating Bynum with neighboring school districts. Bynum spends about $1,300 more per student than the state average. It chooses to pay for a full-time counselor, a full-time nurse, and other niceties rural districts typically lack.

But that talk gets quieter with every test score, every college admission and every educated child the district produces.

“There are kids in larger districts who fall through the cracks,” Ms. Boyd said. “Here, we’ll never let that happen. We’ll do whatever it takes to let them learn.”

Students say ‘whew’ to tuition hike bill; Senate panel scales back boost from 200% to 22% over 2 years

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas has perhaps never seen so many college students happy about having their tuition raised.

“I’m excited,” said Chris Featherstone, student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I see it as a victory.”

He was referring to the Senate education committee’s vote Tuesday to allow universities to raise tuition by more than 22 percent over the next two years. Before scaling back the increases, the committee had been considering allowing a 200 percent increase.

“Doubling or tripling the bill would have made college accessible to only the very rich, who could afford it, or the very poor who could get financial aid,” said Paul Tran, a senior at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I’m glad they completely changed the bill.”

Facing severe funding cuts because of the state’s budget crisis, Texas universities have asked for more freedom to set their tuition rates. For decades, the Legislature has set those rates.

The bill that the Senate committee originally considered would have given each university system’s board of regents the power to set tuition, as long as it did not exceed triple what they now charge.

“We know there will be substantial cuts for higher education,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the committee’s chairwoman. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to just give them carte blanche to charge however much they wanted.”

The bill would increase the state’s mandated tuition from $44 per semester hour to $46 this fall. It would then jump to $52 for the spring 2004 semester, and to $54 in spring 2005.

Tuition had previously been scheduled to go up $2 per year. Universities are also allowed to charge students an additional “designated tuition” that can equal the state’s mandated tuition.

For students taking a standard 15-hour course load, the changes would increase annual tuition up to $600 by 2005.

Several university leaders said the increases, while a step in the right direction, were not sufficient to meet their needs. Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, said legislative cuts mean UNT would likely have to raise tuition immediately by $20 per credit hour just to avoid cutting back services.

“This money isn’t needed to pay for niceties or extras on many campuses – it’s for necessary services,” he said.

“I’ll be very disappointed if this is the final result,” said Woody Hunt, a regent in the University of Texas System. “With the state’s current fiscal crisis, we have to have the ability to seek alternate sources of income to make up for reduced state funding.”

But students were happy that the largest possible increases appear to have been avoided.

“We spoke up, and maybe we were heard,” said Jeremy Brown, Texas Tech’s student body president-elect, who led almost 30 students to Austin this month to lobby against the bill.

The approved bill also calls for a study of higher education finance, so that the Legislature can consider more systemic changes in the 2005 legislative session.

There is still a chance for more substantial tuition deregulation in the current session. A bill in the House higher education committee would give regents free rein in setting tuition rates, although it would also require substantial levels of financial aid.

Perhaps most important to universities will be the outcome of continued budget negotiations. Various proposals have called for higher education funding to be cut between 3.5 and 15 percent.

“Until we know what that final number is, it’s hard to know how bad things are going to be,” said Bob Wright, a spokesman for the Texas A&M University System.

A disappearing act for regime; Tracking Hussein’s vanishing vanguard is next task for Americans

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Only days ago, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was Iraq’s public face on the war, giving his unique spin on worldwide television.

No American soldiers in Baghdad, he insisted almost comically, with U.S. tanks only blocks away. “We besieged them, and we killed most of them.”

And where is he now?

Vanished, along with virtually all of Iraq’s leadership structure and most other remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Only a few leaders have been confirmed killed. The others might be dead, too, or in hiding or seeking refuge in foreign lands.

The task for American forces now is tracking down the ones still alive — and figuring out what to do with them once they find them.

The power void was clear Thursday in Iraqi embassies across the world, as diplomats tried to determine to which government, if any, they reported.

“I haven’t had contact with Baghdad for two or three weeks,” Muaead Hussain, the Iraqi charge d’affaires in Berlin, said through the locked gate of his embassy. “I have no idea what’s going on there.”

In Brazil, embassy employees were seen setting boxes of papers on fire. In Tokyo, Iraqi diplomats threw out bags of shredded documents.

At Baghdad’s diplomatic outpost in Paris, two huge portraits of Saddam Hussein still hung from the walls. “What am I going to do now?” said a nervous young man named Omar Ahmed, who called himself only an official. “Well, I am working here, for our embassy. No more questions, please.”

There were no reports yet of Iraqi diplomats seeking asylum. Mohammed Al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, was the first Iraqi official to acknowledge defeat. He met Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York, even as reports swirled that he was preparing to flee, variously, to France or the Netherlands.

Back in Baghdad, Iraqi officials stopped showing up for work Wednesday, including Mr. al-Sahhaf. American forces reached the villa of Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, but found only looters, not their target.

For those looking to flee, Syria appeared to be the most likely destination. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Syria was being “notably unhelpful” to the American cause by giving refuge to Iraqi leaders.

“We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the movement of people out of Iraq into Syria,” he said. “And then in some cases they stay there … in other cases they’re moving from Syria to still other places.”

On Thursday, U.S. forces attacked Iraqi positions in Al-Qaim, in far western Iraq near the Syrian border, near the end of the most direct route from Baghdad and out of Iraq.

Long stretches of the 310-mile border between Syria and Iraq are loosely guarded, although American special forces are patrolling to try to prevent further departures.

American officials said they did not know where top Iraqi leaders were Thursday. Mr. Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay may have been killed Monday in airstrikes at a Baghdad restaurant. But even if they were killed, there are dozens of other members of Mr. Hussein’s inner circle at large.

Military and CIA teams pushed through Baghdad on Thursday, hunting for top leaders. If Mr. Hussein survived the bombing, officials speculated, he might try to escape to Syria or even his ancestral home in Tikrit, northwest of the capital, for a final battle.

Top Iraqi leaders almost certainly will face prosecution for war crimes if caught alive, which could push them to seek exile or at least a safe hiding place. The same probably is true of many of Mr. Hussein’s military and intelligence officials.

“Those people have fled, if they can,” said Michael Provence, a professor of modern Middle East studies at Southern Methodist University. “They’ve probably panicked and gone as far away as they can ? abroad if they’re able. Some have probably fled to their villages, places where they feel they can be protected by kinsmen.”

Dr. Provence said people lower in the Iraqi hierarchy, including some police, are probably just sitting at home, waiting to see who the new bosses will be.

“The minister of information we saw giving the bombastic remarks, he doesn’t have anything to fear from anybody. He’s a bureaucrat,” Dr. Provence said. “Most people in Iraq think he’s a little heroic, if quixotic.”

What to do with the suddenly former government officials is always a question at times of regime change, particularly when a new government contemplates the manpower needed for rebuilding.

“Many of these people are probably honest and decent government workers,” Dr. Provence said. “In coups and other changes of regime, these people usually keep their jobs. The government can’t function without them.”

At the Cold War’s end, when the communist rulers of Eastern Europe fell, even top leaders were not punished for actions committed while in power.

“With a few exceptions, they were allowed to retire peacefully and just went away,” said Stephen Wegren, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who specializes in post-Soviet states.

In many other cases ? South Africa after apartheid, Chile after Pinochet ? officials of the old government have found homes in the new. U.S. and British officials will have to determine what roles Mr. Hussein’s ruling caste will have in the new state.

If they can find them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

School’s success a lesson in idealism; E. Dallas institution has basic approach: Start young, involve family

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Ask Terry Ford, founder of the East Dallas Community School, what tuition is at her 87-student private school. She’ll surprise you.

“You know, I’m not sure,” she’ll say. “I’ll have to check on it.”

It’s hard to imagine many private school heads not knowing such a basic number. But EDCS isn’t just any private school. Its mission is far more idealistic than getting kids into the Ivy League. Terry Ford wants nothing less than to break the cycle of urban poverty.

“It shouldn’t take wealth for a child to get access to a quality education,” she said.

With the East Dallas Community School, she’s taken quite a step – proving that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds can be pushed into superior performance.

“These children get all the love and attention and mental stimulation that they need,” said Ross Perot, the former presidential candidate who has been a major EDCS backer for two decades. “If they don’t get it at home, they get it at school.”

Ms. Ford’s story begins with the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up “in a white, Republican family” in Prairie Village, Kan., she watched the great marches on television and was mystified by the racism.

“I was righteously incensed by it,” Ms. Ford said. “I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.”

In 1974, she graduated from SMU and knew what she wanted to do: teach children in the inner city. Flush with idealism, she started out at Mount Auburn Elementary, making $80 a week to teach in a 36-child classroom.

She moved into the school’s East Dallas neighborhood. She made home visits, telling parents she was available to talk or help at any time. But Ms. Ford could see that even her good students weren’t always developing well after they left her classroom

“They were falling into bad patterns, falling behind academically, getting hostile attitudes,” she said.

She started talking with some neighborhood parents; they wanted her to start a school. Parents wanted their children to get a good education. Ms. Ford had grander goals: “To show we could stop poverty from leading kids to fail in school.”

In 1978, she quit Mount Auburn and found a local minister to donate space in a run-down church building. The East Dallas Community School’s total budget that first year: about $9,000.

“My big plan was just to survive,” she said.

Philosophy for learning

But early on, Ms. Ford decided on what she now calls the two pillars of her educational philosophy:

• Start young. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, she’s already a product of her environment. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be stimulated by their surroundings.

• Involve parents. Schools have access to a child 40 hours a week. The rest of the time, she’s with mom or dad. If parents aren’t coordinating their efforts with teachers, it’s a lost opportunity.

“They’re very good about training parents on the concept,” said Cafea Harrell, mother of 6-year-old Kenya.

Ms. Ford decided to adopt the Montessori approach. Classrooms aren’t broken down by year; students ages 3 to 6 share a classroom, as do children ages 6 to 9.

“This school is very attuned to where children are developmentally,” said Gaylin Bonner, an EDCS teacher for 11 years.

The Montessori model argues that getting children excited in what they’re doing is more important than structuring and scheduling their days. Classrooms are hives of activity: one child labeling breeds of bird, another writing his name, another learning how to clean his shoes.

Children connect to EDCS before they’re born. One of the school’s programs involves teachers going to the homes of pregnant women to discuss stages of brain development and how prenatal choices can impact a child’s future. There’s an infant/toddler program for 1- and 2-year-olds. Children enroll in classes at age three.

To keep parental involvement high, a student’s family get discounts on tuition based on how many hours they volunteer. The school’s tuition is theoretically $5,000, but only a handful of families pay the full amount. Most pay less than $1,000 a year.

How it has helped

As the school has grown, so has the mountain of evidence showing that Ms. Ford’s model works.

In a neighborhood where perhaps half of all students end up graduating from high school, 95 percent of EDCS students do. Sixty-five percent go on to college. Students consistently score above the national average on standardized tests.

When kids graduate from EDCS, they usually go to Dallas public schools, most often in the district’s magnet schools. Last year, 78 percent of the school’s graduates applied for entry to Dallas’ gifted and talented programs. Every last one was accepted.

“I think our culture underestimates children and what they can accomplish,” said teacher Alice Savage.

There are more than 400 children on the school’s waiting list.

In part to bring that number down – and in part to prove a point – EDCS is spreading its message with taxpayer dollars. It has plans to open a chain of publicly funded charter schools, based on Ms. Ford’s model.

State officials have granted EDCS a charter to open up to six schools, funded with public money. The first, Lindsley Park Community School, opened a few blocks from EDCS in 1999.

Since charter schools are by design exempt from many state regulations, Lindsley Park operates almost exactly as EDCS does.

“The daily life of our children does not follow the format in other public schools,” said Lindsley Park’s director, Tom Loew.

Montessori schools aren’t known for being big on standardized tests. So school officials weren’t sure what to expect when Lindsley Park’s third-graders took the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills last month.

But when the results came in, the school’s passing rate was a perfect 100 percent.

“It was really pretty easy,” said Frances Desmond, 8, who said being at a regular public school “would be really boring.”

Ms. Ford is hesitant to say when more charters will open; she wants to make sure Lindsley Park is financially strong before opening another. But for the last 25 years, her optimism has consistently been turned into reality.

“I really planned on teaching first grade for 99 years,” she said. “But this just felt right.”

Column: No child? No way, many say

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

No child left behind.

Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? After all, the opposite image isn’t very attractive: millions of kids marching merrily into the future and one cheerless orphan lagging back, tears welling in his enormous eyes.

Turning it into law is a different matter.

No Child Left Behind is, of course, last year’s federal education bill, which President Bush and a bipartisan group in Congress passed into law. It requires schools to have a certain percentage of their students pass their states’ standardized tests. (In Texas, that’s the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.)

The law’s big requirement: In 2013-14, every school in America is supposed to have a 100 percent passing rate on its state test. Not one student will fail; no child will be left behind.

Optimism is a wonderful thing — but 100 percent, within the next 11 years?

After all, even the Highland Park district has never had a 100 percent passing rate.

“It hurts me to say it, but I cannot see 100 percent as a realistic goal,” said Marlin Stanberry, principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, where passing rates in the 90s are common. “There are always going to be challenges in a kid’s life beyond what a school can control.”

“It’s completely unattainable, and everybody knows it,” said Monty Neill, who heads FairTest, an anti-testing group in Boston. “I don’t think there’s anybody who seriously thinks it can be reached.”

But No Child isn’t just a distant fanciful wish. There are real consequences for schools that fall short, from a loss of federal money to dissolution.

And that is leading state officials to act like procrastinating students who push the hard work off until the last minute.

Some context: When test scores increase, they do so slowly. Since 1994, the passing rate on the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the predecessor of TAKS, never jumped more than three points in a given year.

No Child Left Behind requires Texas to increase its reading TAKS passing rate from last year’s estimated 46.8 percent to 100 percent in 2013-14. State officials could accomplish that by raising those passing rates by about 5 percentage points every year.

But take a look at the chart. Notice that passing rates required by the state under the law go up only about 2.5 percentage points a year until 2010. Then notice how Texas children suddenly become superhuman around 2011 — the required passing rate jumps almost 9 percentage points a year until it gets to 100.

Increases that size have never been accomplished on any scale. Texas, like a few other states that are setting up similar systems, is pushing all the hard work back a decade.

It’s like a balloon mortgage. Your payments are low and bearable for a few years. But at the end of it, you’ve got to write an awfully big check.

“Governors and chief state school officers don’t serve forever,” said Chester Finn, a conservative advocate of testing and head of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education reform group. “They’re saving the hard work for their successors.”

Why’s Texas doing it? State officials say it’s because kids will have a tough time adjusting to the TAKS, and it’ll take time to push scores up. But there wasn’t any such pattern on the TAAS — scores went up more in the test’s early years and less later.

See, something else will happen between now and those huge gains. In 2008, No Child Left Behind expires, and Congress will have to pass a new law.

“Perhaps these states are hoping things will be relaxed and modified, that Congress will change its mind,” said Sandy Kress, the former Dallas school board president and Bush adviser who was one of No Child Left Behind’s architects.

By 2008, tens of thousands of American schools will be declared “failing” by No Child Left Behind. They’ll be facing hard sanctions, financial and otherwise. Some members of Congress will probably be sympathetic to relaxing that hard 100 percent goal.

It appears Texas is making a high-stakes bet — putting off its homework in hopes that the teacher will decide it was optional after all. If they’re right, everything will work out OK.

If they’re wrong, Texas kids will be looking at a steep climb in a few years.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. Thinking About Education, a column by the newspaper’s education staff, runs each Monday in the Metropolitan section.