Column: Follow the leaders; Texas’ Schools That Work make for a valuable lesson to the many that don’t: The best never rest

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Want to put a reporter in a sour mood?

Just ask one simple question: “Why don’t you print some positive stories for a change?”

All reporters hear it, but those of us who write about schools might get more than our share. People are attached to their neighborhood schools and defend them at all costs – sometimes against all evidence.

So last fall, I launched an experiment in positive vibes, a series of stories under the label “Schools That Work.” The idea: Find eight Texas schools that succeed and try to figure out what they’re doing right.

Ten months later, I don’t know whether to be optimistic or depressed.

The optimism comes from seeing up close what a great school can do. Like transform an immigrant dropout who can’t speak English into an aspiring engineer. Or take a girl from a housing project and a shattered family and get her reading ahead of her grade level.

Hearing these kids tell their stories – with obvious gratitude for the people who’ve helped them – it’s hard not to get emotional. All of the schools I visited take on tough cases and create almost jaw-dropping successes.

The depression comes from the fact that there are 8,000 other schools in Texas. And while plenty of them are good in their own right, too many fall short.

When this year’s TAKS results were released, the mood statewide was generally positive: Kids did better than expected. But the numbers were still scary.

Take the graduation test that 11th-graders must pass next spring to get a diploma. Only 49 percent of students passed it this year. That includes only 33 percent of blacks, 39 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of poor kids. The results for special-ed kids (16 percent) and non-English speakers (15 percent) are even more depressing.

Even if you’re white, English-speaking and reading this in a Highland Park mansion, don’t feel too comfortable. For Texas to work, the less advantaged will have to beat long odds.

Texas schools are already 60 percent minority and 50 percent poor, and any demographer will tell you both numbers will do nothing but climb for the next 40 years.

So what is it about the “Schools That Work” that makes them successful?

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for easy answers, I don’t have them. Each school found success in its own way.

Is it leadership? A few of the schools had dynamic, superstar principals, such as Nancy Blackwell at Houston’s Hambrick Elementary. But some of the others had leaders you might describe as solid but unspectacular.

Is it rigorous testing? Most of the schools embraced the TAAS and TAKS and saw strong performance as a central goal. It brings a focus to everything they do. But at the East Dallas Community School, tests are an afterthought – the Montessori choose-your-own-adventure model rules.

Is it parents? It sure helps when they’re active participants in education. But I didn’t see an unusual level of involvement in the top schools I visited. I still found parents who didn’t know the principal’s name. There were plenty who clearly didn’t do much for their children’s education beyond putting them on the bus each morning.

Which brings me to the other easy way to put a reporter (this one, at least) in a foul mood. This one usually arrives via e-mail a day or two after I write a story about high school dropouts or kids who have trouble passing a state test.

“Those kids can’t be educated,” the writer says. “They don’t want to learn, and you can’t make them. Their parents don’t care, either. It’s a waste of time to even bother.”

Sadly, that e-mail most often comes from a bitter teacher.

Well, here’s the one concrete conclusion I can draw from spending time in eight successful schools: No school with that sort of attitude will ever be successful. At the Schools That Work, there was optimism, zeal and pride in the work they were doing. They were spending too much time working with children to fall into a defeatist mind-set.

Is reaching these kids difficult? Does it involve teachers doing some things that aren’t fun and principals making tough choices? Does it take a willingness to change old ways? Does it take focus, dedication and long hours?

Of course. But don’t tell me it’s impossible.

Education chief quits unexpectedly; Departure of state’s 4th commissioner since ’99 follows legislative battle

By Pete Slover and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Felipe Alanis, the state’s first Hispanic education commissioner, resigned unexpectedly Friday afternoon, the latest to leave what has suddenly become one of state government’s hottest seats.

His replacement, when named by Gov. Rick Perry, will be the fourth person to serve as commissioner since 1999. Texas had had only six education commissioners in the previous 50 years.

Dr. Alanis, 54, has been commissioner since April 2002. He led the state through a dizzying set of changes: a new state test, the development of a new school ratings system, and the myriad requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But his efforts to protect education spending from the state’s budget ax put him in a difficult position during the state’s recent budget crisis.

“I can tell you that being the commissioner of education for the state of Texas, being one of the showcase states in the nation in the area of accountability, is a very, very tough job and certainly takes its toll on anyone,” said Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Dr. Alanis resisted more than $2 billion in education cuts approved by state lawmakers in the just-ended session.

Lawmakers bristled privately after he testified in committee that the schools could be left without enough money to achieve basic accreditation standards – especially in light of demands imposed by the new, tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

One lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Dr. Alanis “had a very difficult time” in dealing with the Legislature on budget issues.

“One could call him overly rigid,” said another source, a professed fan of the commissioner’s who is close to the educational budgeting process. “One could call him principled.”

A spokesman for the governor denied speculation that Dr. Alanis was forced out over his performance on budget matters. “Absolutely not. The governor was pleased with his performance,” said Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt.

Perry praises work

In a written statement, Mr. Perry had nothing but praise for the outgoing commissioner, hailing him for helping to implement federal accountability standards that helped insure $3.3 billion in federal education funds.

Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said Dr. Alanis gave no reasons for the resignation when the two men spoke Friday afternoon. But he said the funding battles over the last few months had been bruising.

“There’s no question that this was a very difficult and challenging legislative session,” he said. “For everyone, but particularly for those of us in public education.”

Dr. Veselka said he hopes Dr. Alanis’ replacement will have a longer stay than his or her predecessors. “I think it’s difficult for the public schools when there is rapid turnover in a position of leadership,” he said.

Before becoming commissioner, Dr. Alanis had experience at TEA, having served as deputy commissioner for programs and instruction from 1995 to 1999. In that role, he was in charge of curriculum and testing issues. He was a finalist for the commissioner’s job in 1999, but then-Gov. George W. Bush selected Dallas lawyer Jim Nelson instead.

His first job in education was as a teacher at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School near the Mexico border. He was later a deputy superintendent of the Ector County schools and superintendent in San Benito.

From 1999 to 2002, he served as assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs in the University of Texas System, overseeing a project to strengthen the UT campuses’ role in teacher training.

Mr. Perry appointed Dr. Alanis last year to fill the remaining eight months of Mr. Nelson’s four-year term. Dr. Alanis, who is paid about $165,000 annually, had been serving without a formal reappointment since January.

A degree of calm

Chase Untermeyer, a former State Board of Education member who left office in December, said Dr. Alanis brought a degree of calm to the board, on which he serves as executive secretary. The board had been known for rancorous disputes between conservative and moderate forces through much of the 1990s.

“He had a very cordial relationship,” Mr. Untermeyer said. “There was a degree of hostility between certain members of the board and the previous two commissioners. That vanished during Felipe’s time.”

In an e-mail letter to agency employees, Dr. Alanis said he had “mixed emotions” about resigning. “I am a better person leaving this agency, smarter and enriched beyond words,” he wrote.

Dr. Alanis did not say what he would be doing next but wrote that he would “remain active in educational endeavors.”

Mr. Untermeyer said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Dr. Alanis return to his superintendent roots.

“I guess what I was expecting was that he would be hired away by a major city school district,” he said.

Staff writer Scott Parks contributed to this report.

Reading students make grade; Test shows state’s white, black, Hispanic pupils compare well with peers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas’ white, black and Hispanic students fare well against their peer groups across the country in reading, according to new scores from “the Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The NAEP, which is given by the federal government, is perhaps the most respected of the nation’s major academic tests. Unlike state tests such as the TAAS or TAKS, students don’t spend months preparing for the NAEP. Teachers don’t swap strategies on ways to beat the NAEP, as they sometimes do with the state tests that can define their schools’ accountability ratings.

The NAEP is graded on a 500-point scale and given to a scientifically selected sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. In fourth grade, state averages ranged from 234 (Massachusetts) to 203 (Mississippi). In eighth grade, they ranged from 272 (Vermont) to 250 (California).

Overall, Texas’ scores aren’t spectacular. Its fourth-graders scored a 217, which ranked them 29th of 43 states that took the test. At eighth grade, 41 states took the test; Texas finished 28th, with a score of 262.

But those low scores are highly influenced by demographics. Texas students are more likely to be poor, have trouble speaking English or be recent immigrants than the national average.

Breaking down the scores by racial groups paints a sunnier picture.

? White fourth-grade students finished sixth in the country when compared with whites in other states. At eighth grade, white Texas students ranked third.

? Texas’ Hispanic fourth-grade students finished fifth in the country. Hispanic eighth-graders finished ninth.

? Black students also fared well, ranking 13th in fourth grade and seventh in eighth grade.

Texas students scored above the national average on both tests in every racial and ethnic subgroup.

“The performance of Texas students on the NAEP reading exam stacks up well against their peers nationwide,” said Felipe Alanis, the Texas education commissioner.

This pattern of test scores is not new for Texas. The state’s racial and ethnic groups have historically fared well when compared with their peers in other states on NAEP. But their overall scores are lower because of Texas’ larger population of poor and minority students.

“If you look at the states that do better than us, they tend to be very homogenous and very white,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It’s the Connecticuts and the Delawares and the Montanas of the world. Our test-taking population was much more ethnically diverse and had a higher percentage of poor children.”

That population shift has sped up in the last few years. When the NAEP reading test was last given in 1998, 50 percent of the fourth-graders tested in Texas were white. On the most recent test given last year, only 37 percent were.

Making improvements

Nationally, fourth-graders made a substantial gain, jumping from 213 two years ago to 217. Eighth-graders nationally moved up one point, while 12th-graders dropped three points. (NAEP does not report state-by-state results for 12th-graders because the number of students tested was too small.)

“Today’s results show that the best students are still getting better, but the lower-performing students are getting better, too,” said Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education.

In Texas, NAEP provides some ammunition for those who argue that the state’s large gains on the TAAS test exaggerate how much progress the state has made.

From 1994 to 2002, the TAAS reading passing rate for fourth-graders increased by 19 percentage points, from 73 to 92 percent. But the percentage of fourth-graders reaching the “basic” level on NAEP ? a comparable but somewhat more difficult task ? increased only four points, from 58 to 62 percent.

The pattern for eighth-graders is similar. From 1998 to 2002, their TAAS passing rates went up 13 percentage points, while NAEP basic rates increased only one point.

“The longer that kids are in a system aimed at increasing a single test score, the more time they’re spending in class taking practice tests aimed at the one score,” said Linda McNeil, a Rice professor who has been critical of Texas’ testing system. “That robs you of class time to spend doing other things that aren’t narrowly focused on the test.”

“I think if we weren’t seeing any gains or declines, I might be willing to buy that argument,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “But I think as long as the trend lines are moving in the same direction, they’re not inconsistent. We know that our test closely reflected what was taught in Texas classrooms. This is a national test that’s not necessarily tied to our curriculum. It’s expected.”

Texas exclusions

In addition, Texas schools excluded more students from testing than most other states. On the fourth-grade test, for example, 11 percent of Texas students were excluded from NAEP testing because they were special-education students or did not speak English well. The national exclusion rate was only 7 percent.

Excluding those students ? who usually don’t do well on tests ? typically increases average test scores.

Ms. Ratcliffe said that higher exclusion rate can be explained by Texas’ larger-than-average population of recent immigrants and other non-English speakers. The Texas exclusion rate was also three points lower than it was for the 1998 reading NAEP.

Expecting more gains

Texas officials say they expect larger gains in future years because of the Texas Reading Initiative, which has trained teachers in early grades on reading techniques. State officials credit the program with the better-than-expected scores of third-graders on this spring’s TAKS reading test.

Those third-graders will be in fourth grade next year, when the NAEP reading test is next given again. The federal No Child Left Behind law now mandates NAEP reading and math tests every other year.

At Houston alternative school, the eyes have it; Curriculum steeped in art helps at-risk ‘visual learners’ excel

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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HOUSTON — Lea Ann Lockard has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with a second master’s on the way. But on the wall of her office at the Spring Branch School of Choice, you’ll only find one diploma – from A.C. Jones High School in Beeville, Texas.

“That one took more work and more effort than the others,” said Ms. Lockard, the school’s principal. “That’s the valuable one.”

That’s the attitude of everyone at the School of Choice, an alternative school for teenagers on the brink of dropping out: A diploma is worth fighting for.

“Nobody here is looking to get in trouble,” senior Maurice Moore said. “Everybody’s focused on their work and graduating.”

Across America, lost students wander the halls of giant high schools, unnoticed until they stop showing up at all.

To be admitted to the Spring Branch School of Choice, you have to be one of those kids, officially considered “at risk” of dropping out. Among the ways a child earns the label: by falling two years behind in math or reading; by veering off course to graduate in four years; by getting pregnant; or by having previously dropped out.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that last year, in the final year of Texas’ TAAS test, the School of Choice posted reading and writing passing rates higher than the state average.

They also beat the reading and writing averages of traditional high schools in the Spring Branch district, which is in west Houston. That means that the kids – every last one of them considered a threat to drop out or fail or worse – ended up topping their better-off peers back at their home schools.

“Our kids have to get past the idea that once you mess up, you can’t get back on track,” said science teacher Debbie Sheffield.

The idea behind the School of Choice and other alternative schools is to personalize the environment. They make the classes smaller and emphasize one-on-one learning. And since teachers know their kids haven’t succeeded in regular schools, they have the freedom to try something different.

“We don’t do the things that didn’t work before,” said English teacher Bob Koupa. “Giving them a bunch of worksheets works for some kids. But not for all.”

The school’s most obvious departure from the norm is its integration of art into every element of the school’s curriculum. “These students are visual learners,” said Joanne Frimel, the school’s art coordinator. “If they could draw their way through school, they’d ace it.”

Ms. Frimel floats from classroom to classroom, helping teachers integrate art into their assignments. A unit on African history means kids making ceramic idols in the style of West African religions. The concept of chemical solutions is taught through experiments with watercolors.

The school’s hallways are lined with posters and paintings. In physics class, Matisse paintings are used to demonstrate the properties of color and light. Kandinsky’s shapes are used to demonstrate the properties of geometric shapes. When a math teacher brings up three-dimensional shapes, she does it through Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come up in language arts classes.

“The art makes the core subject friendly,” Ms. Frimel said. “It’s an alternative to ‘Read Chapter 8 then answer the questions at the end of the chapter.'”

In a regular English class, a writing exercise might just mean composing a story. In Mr. Koupa’s English class it means building a story visually by arranging a series of images on a poster – then writing a story telling the narrative the images produce. Most of the images show members of the Blue Man Group in abstract poses.

“When you change the stimulus and focus with these kids, they just go,” said Mr. Koupa, a former regional teacher of the year who compares the teaching style to what gifted and talented children get.

“These teachers will try to help you through anything,” said 19-year-old Dennis Martinez, who will graduate in December. Without the School of Choice, he said, “I would have been gone two years ago.”

In 1999, the school won the National Dropout Prevention Center’s annual Crystal Star Award as one of the nation’s premier anti-dropout efforts.

The School of Choice isn’t just a second chance for students. For teachers, it’s usually a second career.

Ms. Lockard said that only three of the school’s 23 teachers took the traditional route – four years in a college of education. You’ll find an ex-stock broker, a former taxidermist and a retired dentist. (“Pulling teeth is easy – this is hard,” joked John Baker, language arts teacher, to recent immigrants.)

“People here aren’t so indoctrinated in the educationese approach,” said Mr. Koupa, a former insurance salesman and artist who didn’t finish college until his 40s.

A job interview at the School of Choice is grueling, Ms. Lockard said, as she and other staffers try to determine whether a prospective teacher shares the school’s ideals. Negative attitudes are banned; there’s to be no humiliation of kids if they fall short of expectations.

“Some people think it’s OK for some kids to fail,” Ms. Lockard said. “It’s a red flag for a teacher to ever say, ‘It’s the parents’ fault.’ We just can’t have that attitude here.”

“Usually when you find at-risk kids, you find the worst teachers in the district,” Ms. Sheffield said. “But here you’ll find the best teachers.”

Ms. Lockard’s background gives her a perspective on what the school’s kids need. Her father was in the Navy, which meant moving often. She attended five high schools in four school districts in two states.

“If this school had existed for me, I would have been a student here,” she said.

She was an EMT, a newspaper ad salesperson and a Child Protective Services caseworker before turning to education in 1990.

Every element of the school is focused on making it work for students. Teachers know that almost all their kids have jobs, children or both, so they keep out-of-class assignments to a minimum. For students needing to make up credits, there are computer learning centers. There are night classes for those who must work during the day. Many of a traditional high school’s distractions – pep rallies, football games – don’t exist here.

“I’ve seen total transitions here,” said assistant principal Frank Biggs. “I’ve seen them blossom.”

When Jorge Garcia arrived from Mexico seven years ago, he didn’t speak English. Academics were a struggle. He went to school only two or three days a week and considered dropping out.

“At my old school, the teachers didn’t care,” he said. “If you didn’t pay attention, they’d just forget about you. They were like, ‘If he doesn’t pass, that’s his problem.'”

He switched to the School of Choice, but he still wasn’t sure of his success. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know if I can make it,'” said Joyce Roberta Miller-Alper, his government teacher and the 1989 Texas Teacher of the Year.

But Jorge started getting individual attention in the subjects he needed help in, like writing. “Here you feel like someone cares about you,” he said. “If they see you’re trying your best, they’ll help you out. There’s nobody with a negative attitude.”

Jorge is the father of a 2-month-old girl and works full time in the kitchen of a Houston steakhouse. His schedule: school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., work from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. “It gets you stressed out,” he said. “But you know you have a plan, that you’re doing it for a reason.”

Last month, he got word he’d passed the writing section of the TAAS – the last hurdle between him and graduation. On May 30, he walked across the auditorium stage and moved one step closer to the life of his dreams.

“If this school didn’t exist, I’d just be a dropout, no doubt,” he said.

Agency trademarks TAKS, tests moneymaking waters with TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Eagle-eyed visitors to the Texas Education Agency’s Web site may have noticed a recent change.

The state’s standardized test is no longer just the TAKS. It’s the TAKS(tm).

Trademarking its flagship test is the state’s first step toward turning it into a commodity, sellable to schools in other states. It cost millions for Texas to develop the TAKS, or Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills ? now it wants to recoup some of that money.

“We are taking a more aggressive approach to protecting our intellectual property,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, an agency spokeswoman.

For several years, the agency has put old versions of TAKS and its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, on its Web site, where they’re available for easy download. A teacher in another state could simply print a copy of the TAAS and use it.

In December, Manuel Rodriguez, superintendent of public schools in Roswell, N.M., did just that. He was looking for a new way to see how his district’s 9,300 students were performing. An Odessa native who used to work in the Houston schools, Dr. Rodriguez was familiar with the TAAS. So his schools downloaded tests from the TEA Web site and gave them to students.

“We wanted an external benchmark to compare our kids against,” he said.

But a Roswell resident tipped off TEA, which sent its lawyers after Dr. Rodriguez. They told him he was violating the state’s copyright. He agreed not to give the TAAS again.

Dr. Rodriguez argued that he’d done nothing wrong, because the only restriction listed on the TEA Web site when he visited it was a ban on using the TAAS for “commercial purposes.” But that changed when new language went up on the site this month.

State policy still allows Texas public schools to use the TAKS and TAAS without restriction. But private companies in Texas ? and anyone out of state, public or private ? must get written approval from TEA before using or republishing any portion of the tests. That approval “may involve the payment of a licensing fee or a royalty fee,” the Web site says.

TEA officials said the fees have not been set. Dealing with serious budget cuts, TEA is happy to find whatever revenue it can. The state’s testing program ? developing, printing, distributing, grading ? costs about $50 million a year.

The move may be unprecedented.

“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a state with its own custom-built assessment has decided to be a test vendor,” said John Olson, director of assessments for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In one way, the timing couldn’t be better for Texas. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into federal law last year, requires all 50 states to give tests at seven grade levels in reading and math by 2006. Science tests follow two years later.

Texas is one of the few states that already have all of those tests in place. Other states are scrambling to write their own tests or buy them from testing companies.

A tough sell?

But persuading an entire state to adopt the TAKS or TAAS ? and by extension the Texas curriculum on which they’re based ? could be difficult. Most have their own state curriculum in place and are likely to build or buy tests that are closely aligned with what’s taught in their classrooms.
“States are very protective of their own curriculum and their own standards,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit policy group based in Denver. “They don’t want to say that our standards are the same as some other states, even if they are pretty close.”

Texas might have better luck with people such as Dr. Rodriguez ? superintendents, principals or even teachers looking for a diagnostic test to see how students are doing. Almost all TAAS questions are multiple-choice, which could make them quick to grade and attractive to schools.

“Districts and schools and states use that sort of test all the time,” Ms. Christie said. “Certainly, there’s a huge market out there for diagnostic assessments.”

Texas has gone down this route before, with the Texas Primary Reading Inventory. The early-literacy test is given to students in grades K-2, and it has been acclaimed by researchers for identifying weaknesses in a child’s reading skills.

Not long after TEA built the test in 1997, it started getting requests from schools around the country. At first, the test materials were sold at cost. But sensing a potential market, officials raised the prices. Now, a classroom’s worth of TPRI materials is available for purchase online for $225. It has generated more than $70,000 in profits for TEA in the last two years.

“It’s a hot property,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Texas now actively markets the TPRI with ads in trade publications. Ms. Ratcliffe said the agency didn’t have any immediate plans to market TAKS or TAAS similarly.

Dr. Rodriguez, the Roswell superintendent, said he wouldn’t be willing to pay to use the TAAS or TAKS in his schools. But he understands TEA’s decision.

“I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “I’m a Texan at heart. They have all rights to protect their properties.”

Parker County escapees captured; Inmates found at house in Tarrant after daylong search

By Joshua Benton and Reese Dunklin
Staff Writers

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WEATHERFORD – In the end, freedom was fleeting.

The three inmates who spent weeks planning their escape from the Parker County Jail – they crawled through an air duct in their cell out to the roof, where they jumped and ran away – were surrounded 15 hours later on Saturday at an associate’s house in remote Tarrant County.

After a brief standoff with police, the three men surrendered, were taken into custody and were returned to the very place they’d tried so hard to flee.

“They will be well supervised,” Sheriff Jay Brown said Saturday night from the county jail in Weatherford.

Police planned to file escape charges against Wesley Eugene Hilton, 41; Michael Ray West, 35; and James Douglas Holden, 37.

Authorities also detained four people in connection with the escape and charged them with hindering apprehension.

Three of them – Albert Lewis, 58; James Mort, 35; and Clara Towler, 26 – were taken to the Parker County jail. Bail had not been set.

The fourth – Gene Malone, who police said owned the home where the inmates hid out – was taken to Tarrant County, where he faces additional charges.

Sheriff Brown said police were investigating how the inmates escaped and whether they had other help.

The escape – at least the fourth in Parker County since 1994 – renewed concerns about security and guard staffing at the Parker County Jail.

Sheriff had sought help

Sheriff Brown said he had approached Parker County commissioners in recent years after taking office in the late 1990s and asked for approval for a 10-foot fence topped with razor wire for the jail’s perimeter.

But commissioners didn’t approve his proposal. If inmates can make it outside the jail’s walls, the sheriff said, “they’re scot-free.”

“I tried so hard to get that fence,” he said. “I might be able to get it now. … This just proves the point I’ve been trying to make for seven years.”

The jail has about one guard for every 40 inmates, just under the state’s mandated ratio of 1-to-48. Sheriff’s officials said their efforts to hire more guards have also been rejected.

“We do need more help down here,” said Investigator Anne Hollis, a department spokeswoman. “We can’t keep working on the manpower we have.”

County officials said that the sheriff’s fence proposal wasn’t made at a time when money could be allocated, and they insisted that the jail has an adequate numbers of guards.

“I don’t think that he should throw it in the lap of the commissioners,” said Commissioner Jim Webster.

The escape happened about 3 a.m. Saturday when the inmates worked loose bars over an air duct in their cell. Sheriff Brown said that once the men were in the air duct, they were apparently able to tear it apart at the seam and get onto the roof.

From there, the three apparently took off their jail clothes, jumped 15 feet to the ground and fled wearing only their boxer shorts to a home about a mile away, where police say they were assisted by Mr. Lewis, Mr. Mort and Ms. Towler. Jail guards discovered the three missing about 3:45 a.m.

Several questioned

Sheriff’s deputies questioned visitors to the inmates or anyone who might have spoken to them by telephone. Sheriff Brown said he believed that phone conversations were taped and that investigators would review those tapes.

The daylong manhunt took a key turn about 4 p.m. when Parker County Sheriff’s Department deputies spotted a red Chevrolet pickup believed to have been used by the three inmates outside the home on Nine Mile Bridge Road, Sheriff Jay Brown said.

Sheriff’s deputies, along with state officers, swarmed the home in the 7500 block of Nine Mile Bridge Road, a presumed “safe house,” Sheriff Brown said.

When deputies arrived, Mr. Malone, the homeowner, quickly came out and surrendered. Mr. Holden followed suit about a minute later, officials said.

But Mr. Hilton and Mr. West barricaded themselves inside the two-story home, possibly in the attic. Officials waited for more than an hour and, around 5:30 p.m., fired tear gas inside, eventually driving the two outside. They gave up as well. No one was injured in the standoff.

The inmates had apparently been plotting the escape for a while, officials said. Police said the men had outside help, but Mr. Holden denied that to investigators.

Other inmates knew

Three other inmates who shared the cell with the escapees told investigators that they knew about the breakout plans but feared retaliation if they told jail officials, authorities said. The inmates who stayed behind said the escapees had been working on the bars for about six weeks.

Mr. Hilton and Mr. West hadn’t been in the Parker County Jail long.

Mr. Hilton was arrested in April in the 1999 slaying of Tarrant County car salesman Robert Pounds. Mr. Pounds’ body was found in the driveway of his home, which is in the same neighborhood as Nine Mile Bridge Road. Mr. Hilton has several other criminal charges in his past.

Mr. West was moved to the Parker County Jail in April and was serving a 50-year sentence on burglary charges. Last year, he escaped from the Hood County Jail for five days and had attempted to escape from a state prison facility in 1991.

Mr. Holden was in the Parker County Jail because authorities had revoked his parole after an assault charge, said Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

When sheriff’s deputies returned the men to the jail, they were taken near reporters gathered there. Sheriff Brown quipped to Mr. Hilton, “You’ve earned a little more time today.”

Staff writer Jamie Jordan contributed to this report.

Growing number of Hispanics leaving school in Texas; 20.7% dropout rate is worse than in Florida, California, study says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The national Hispanic dropout rate isn’t quite as bad as some have claimed, but Texas is bucking the trend and letting an increasing number of Latinos fall through the cracks, a study released Thursday says.

The report, from the Pew Hispanic Center, analyzed dropout statistics nationally and for the three states with the largest Hispanic populations: Texas, California and Florida.

It found that Texas’ Hispanic dropout rate increased from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 20.7 percent in 2000. Texas also had the highest rate of the three, ahead of California’s 17.8 percent and Florida’s 18.8 percent.

The figures are based on census calculations of the number of Hispanics 16 to 19 years old who didn’t have a diploma or GED and weren’t enrolled in school.

“If these numbers are right, it’s a very bad sign for Texas,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, whose own disputed statistics assert that the state’s Hispanic dropout rate dropped 46 percent between 1996 and 2001.

The report says previous estimates of the national Hispanic dropout rate – sometimes cited as 40 percent or more – have typically overestimated the problem because they included recent immigrants who never enrolled in American schools.

For example, the 2000 census estimated that 21 percent of all Hispanics ages 16 to 19 were dropouts. But among Hispanics born in the United States, the dropout rate was only 14 percent, the study says.

“I think there are reasons for optimism,” said Richard Fry, a senior research associate of the center and author of the report.

Immigrant Hispanics dropped out at a much higher rate: 33.7 percent. But only 18 percent of immigrants who actually enrolled in American schools dropped out.

“Generally when the public uses the phrase ‘dropout,’ the assumption is that they’re dropping out of our schools,” Dr. Fry said. “For Latinos, that’s often not the case.”

But by any measure, the Hispanic dropout rate remains higher than for other subgroups. The same method of calculation found dropout rates of 12 percent for black students and 8 percent for white students.

How to count dropouts has been a thorny problem for educators in Texas and around the country. Since 1994, Texas schools have been rated based on what the state calls the “annual dropout rate,” which critics have derided as too low.

Dallas schools, for instance, have an annual dropout rate of 1.1 percent, officially. But they enrolled 15,095 freshmen last year and only 6,307 seniors.

A bill passed by the Legislature last month requires Texas to use the federal government’s definition of a dropout, which counts most of those who receive GEDs as dropouts, in its new accountability system. A study released last year found that switching to the tougher federal definition would nearly quadruple the state’s dropout rate.

TAKS exposes the grade divide; High schools rethink approach as new test shows performance gap

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

If there’s a red wine stain on your carpet, you’ve got two options.

You can scrub, scrub, scrub and do the hard work of getting it clean. Or you can just throw a rug over it.

For years, Texas has had a hidden stain: Its high schools have been weak performers. But the stain has been cloaked by the TAAS, which made high schools look better than they were.

The debut of the state’s new test, the TAKS, has pulled away the rug. Texas high schools scored poorly, with passing rates often 10 or 20 points lower than elementaries.

Now high schools have a lot of scrubbing to do.

“I’m worried,” said Carolyn Dowler, principal at Irving High School. “For some kids, it’ll mean six days of school every week. But we’ll do what we have to.”

Texas isn’t alone in this battle. The biggest gains in American education reform have mostly been in the lower grades, experts say. Teenagers are still a challenge.

“I think American high schools are in need of major reform,” said Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “For myriad reasons, we haven’t been as successful as we’d like.”

To understand why high schools’ problems have been hidden, you have to understand the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, which debuted in 1990.

TAAS measured only a basic set of skills ? more basic than what most educators would consider “on grade level.”

With each grade, the TAAS fell a little bit further behind grade level. The third-grade test, for instance, was a close approximation of what kids should know. But the high school test measured skills that students should have mastered in middle school.

“The old 10th-grade TAAS test, I think everyone pretty much admitted, was roughly an eighth-grade test of basic math and reading skills,” said Sandy Kress, a former Dallas school board president and Bush education adviser.

Since the high school TAAS expected less from students, it was easier for them to pass. Plus, students had to pass the high school TAAS to graduate, so students had a strong incentive to do well.

The result: Under TAAS, passing rates looked about the same in every grade. The passing rates in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools were within 2 percentage points of each other in 2002, TAAS’ final year.

The TAKS ? the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills ? is a different matter. It’s meant to be on grade level.

For the first time, high school students are being tested on high school material, such as biology, American history and algebra.

As a result, the TAKS is harder than the TAAS at all grade levels ? but for high schoolers, it’s much harder.

Last week’s statewide scores bore this out. On the TAKS reading, writing and math tests, the average passing rate for students in grades three to five was 86.4 percent. In grades six to eight, it dropped to 81.6 percent. And in high schools, it was 70.8 percent.

Those scores match up with criticism that, despite rapidly climbing TAAS scores over the last decade, Texas’ SAT scores are still low. Texas’ average SAT score last year (991) ranked 48th of the 50 states.

And the state is falling further behind, not catching up. In the last 10 years, the average SAT score in the United States has gone up 19 points. The average Texas score has increased only 12.

Why do they struggle?

Why do high schools underperform? Experts offered up a few reasons:

? High schools are too big. Some high schools, mostly in growing suburbs, are crammed with up to 4,000 students. At that size, it can be difficult to create an individual connection with kids. And with any organization that size, making substantial changes can be like trying to shove an elephant down a path.

“In a large school, you can’t get to as many kids who need help,” said Bobby Watkins, principal at The Colony High School, which has 2,000 students but had 3,000 a few years ago before a new school opened. “You can’t identify who needs help. They fell through the cracks.”

? There’s too much tracking. Unlike in lower grades where most students take similar classes, some high schoolers get put in boring, low-level classes with minimal expectations. It’s tough for those kids to pass a more strenuous test such as the TAKS.

“In most high schools, if you’re enrolled in freshman honors English, you’re expected to read more books, to write more short papers, maybe even to write a long research paper,” said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a group that promotes high school reform. “If you’re in a lower-level language arts class, you’re reading less, you’re writing less and the material probably isn’t as interesting.

“If you were already behind, you will continue to fall further behind.”

Lower-level classes are often packed with worksheets and repetitive tasks, which are unlikely to inspire students. They are often taught by the least-experienced or weakest teachers, he said.

? High schools haven’t gotten enough attention. Most states have pushed for reform through their testing programs by holding schools accountable for how their students perform. But those have usually been focused on elementary and middle schools.

For instance, until this year, Texas students took the TAAS every year from grades three through eight. But they took the TAAS only once in high school, in 10th grade.

Parents tend to be more involved in their child’s education when they’re younger. If they are involved in high school, it’s often in sports or some other activity that isn’t purely academic.

“These kids have so many more things to do and look at and see and talk about,” said Norman Reuther, principal at Flower Mound High School. “Younger kids have a little more structure in their life. For high school kids, the distractions are monstrous and many.”

Funding issue

Dr. Tirozzi said only 5 percent of the federal funding that schools get to help at-risk children is spent on high schools. Superintendents usually have focused most of their resources on earlier grades.

“You do need to build that strong foundation,” he said. “But high schools need some of that attention.”

The weakness of American high schools is striking when compared with other nations. In 1995, a study called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study compared American fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders against other countries.

U.S. fourth-graders finished 11th of 25 nations tested in math. But eighth-graders dropped to 28th of the 41 nations tested. High school seniors finished near the bottom: 19th of 21, ahead of only South Africa and Cyprus. The drop-off was similar in science.

These problems haven’t gone unnoticed by state officials. On Monday, the Legislature passed a bill creating a high school initiative. The state will allocate $60 million over the next two years to finance the creation of “personal graduation plans” for students at risk of falling behind, including all students who fail the TAKS.

Districts will receive money if they draw up such plans, giving students access to accelerated instruction, online coursework and highly qualified teachers.

To combat tracking, Texas is requiring high school students to be on what’s known as the “recommended” graduation plan starting in 2004. It requires more classes in core academic subjects than the state’s “minimum” plan.

Schools are also trying their own methods. At South Grand Prairie High, the school is divided into five academies, which function as small schools within the 2,500-student campus. It makes education more personal, principal Roy Garcia said.

At The Colony High School, teachers are experimenting with joint history/English classes to improve communications and show students the connections between the things they learn.

It’s that sort of experimentation that Texas probably will be seeing more of in the next few years, as high schools grasp at ways to bring scores up to par.

“It’s not going to be easy or painless over the next five years,” Mr. Kress said. “But these are changes that absolutely have to be made.”

Column: TAKS scores panic? Some rules on whether to worry

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

John Dewey, the philosopher and educator, once said that standardized tests reminded him of “the way they used to weigh hogs in Texas.”

“They would get a long plank, put it over a crossbar and somehow tie the hog on one end of the plank,” he said. “They’d search all around till they found a stone that would balance the weight of the hog, and they’d put it on the other end of the plank.

“Then they’d guess the weight of the stone.”

It’s a joke worth remembering: Test scores are always imprecise, confusing and open to interpretation.

On Friday, state officials dumped the first major load of Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores on an unsuspecting public. Once all the figures become available this week, The Dallas Morning News will tell you how your local school districts performed on the new state test.

Chances are, the numbers you see will be smaller than you’re used to. But you might not know whether to be alarmed.

So today we offer a miniguide to help parents cope with some reactions they might have in the new TAKS world. In short, here’s how to know when to panic and when to think twice before calling for your superintendent’s head.

Reaction No. 1: My school’s scores dropped! They must be doing an awful job!

Yes, just about everybody’s passing rates fell, some more than others. On average, rates fell most in high schools and schools with more poor kids; well-off suburban schools and elementary schools dropped less.

But the TAKS is a much tougher test than its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, and a drop is only natural. (Texas’ dirty little secret for years has been that the TAAS just wasn’t very hard; the graduation test was at about an eighth-grade level.)

If you want to judge your school’s progress since last year, ask the secretary for something called TAAS equivalency scores. That’s the state’s rough estimate of how a school would have performed if kids had taken the TAAS this year. Even schools that saw big drops might show gains on TAAS equivalency scores ? which means they’re still improving.

Reaction No. 2: But wait, I thought my school was exemplary!

That old ratings system is so 1990s.

With the new test, the state is pulling together a new way to label schools. It should be ready in November. Meanwhile, there won’t be any new school ratings until 2004. Technically, exemplary schools will keep the title until then.

But if the new definitions of exemplary and recognized are anything close to the old definitions, you’ll see a massive drop in the number of highly rated schools. It’s a real-estate agent’s nightmare ? suddenly that nice, neocolonial four-bedroom, two-bath isn’t quite as attractive, now that its neighborhood school has dropped from exemplary to acceptable.

Remember: A new label doesn’t mean your school suddenly became delinquent. It just means it’s being held to a higher standard.

Reaction No. 3: These passing rates will get better quickly, right?

Don’t bet on it. Under TAAS, passing rates climbed a steady three points a year or so, and Texans got used to the drumbeat of good testing news every spring.

The beat will sound a little different over the next two years. See, the State Board of Education didn’t want to inflict all the pain of the new test at once. So it decided to make passing this year’s TAKS artificially easy. It’ll get tougher each of the next two years.

For instance, eighth-graders could pass the math TAKS this year by getting 24 of the 50 questions right. Next year, they’ll need 27. In 2005, it’ll be 30.

That means that if 2005’s eighth-graders perform exactly as well as this year’s did, their statewide passing rate will drop 21 percentage points. So hold off on that champagne. Teachers will have to draw significant improvement out of their kids just to stay even.

Reaction No. 4: My kid’s just finishing his sophomore year, and he didn’t do well on the TAKS. Should I be worried?

Unfortunately, worry would be appropriate. This year’s sophomores are the first class that will have to pass all four sections of the 11th-grade TAKS to earn a Texas high school diploma. Only 52 percent managed to pass all sections of this year’s 10th-grade tests.

This will be the biggest Texas education story of 2005. Other states ? Massachusetts and Florida notably ? have seen major political upheaval when students run into tough graduation tests that leave thousands of kids without sheepskins and thousands of parents enraged.

And remember, the test just gets harder. If kids’ performance remains level, the passing rates for juniors are set to plummet over the next two years: 24 percentage points in math, 8 in English language arts, 12 in social studies and 20 in science.

If scores don’t improve in a hurry, it’s the proverbial train wreck waiting to happen.

Perhaps that’s not the happiest thought for the start of summer vacation, but the challenges of TAKS are just starting ? we’ll see over the next few years if Texas can meet them.