By Joshua Benton
When Superintendent Larry Lewis faces opposition to his financial management of Lancaster ISD, his response is to point to the academic progress in his district.
“I can give you data to show that where we were in ’03 and where we are today – that we’ve had tremendous academic improvement,” Dr. Lewis said Friday. “When you look at what we’ve done with students of poverty, of ethnic minority, we’ve seen tremendous growth since we’ve been here.”
But while Lancaster’s TAKS scores have improved, the increases have been smaller than those of almost every other area district.
In 2003, shortly before Dr. Lewis took over as superintendent, Lancaster had the second-worst test scores of any district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – slightly lower than those of the Wilmer-Hutchins schools.
The only district to score worse than Lancaster was the tiny Masonic Home district, which taught students at a Fort Worth orphanage. Both Masonic Home and Wilmer-Hutchins have since been shut down, following years of academic struggles.
But in 2006, after three years of testing under Dr. Lewis, Lancaster’s scores were still the lowest in the area.
Part of Lancaster’s poor performance can be attributed to its disadvantaged student body; low-income students generally score lower than middle-class or wealthy students. But five other districts in North Texas have higher poverty rates than Lancaster – and each has higher average TAKS scores than Lancaster.
In Dallas ISD, for example, 84 percent of students are low-income – higher than Lancaster’s 65 percent. Yet 53 percent of Dallas students passed all sections of the TAKS in 2006, compared with 38 percent in Lancaster.
While Lancaster’s TAKS passing rate has increased since 2003, the same is true of virtually every school district in the state. That’s because a number of unusual factors artificially lowered TAKS performance that year.
First, it was the first year that the TAKS test replaced the much easier TAAS. Schools almost always fare poorly when a tougher new exam debuts. Scores tend to increase as teachers learn more about what the test covers and find new ways to improve performance.
Second, schools knew that their 2003 scores, in many ways, didn’t count. State officials had put the school ratings system on a one-year hiatus – meaning that no schools were labeled “unacceptable” because of low scores.
In addition, passing the highest-pressure TAKS test of all – the 11th-grade exam – was not required for graduation that year, as it has been each year since. That caused scores to be low.
And while Lancaster has made gains, other districts have made substantially bigger ones.
Between 2003 and 2006, Lancaster’s overall passing rate on the TAKS increased 14 percentage points, from 24 percent to 38 percent. But during that same span, the state’s overall passing rate increased from 48 percent to 67 percent – an increase of 19 percentage points.
And during Dr. Lewis’ time in office, the gap between Lancaster and other area districts has grown.
In 2003, Lancaster was less than 1 percentage point behind the next-lowest-scoring district. But by 2006, it had fallen 12 percentage points behind the next-lowest- scoring district.
In fact, of the 58 school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Lancaster finished 50th in the size of its TAKS gains since 2003. And several districts with smaller gains – like Highland Park, Carroll, and McKinney – are high-scoring districts that, mathematically, didn’t have much room left to improve their passing rates.
Overall scores for the 2007 TAKS tests aren’t available yet, but scores broken down by subject and grade level are. Lancaster again fared very poorly. Of the 27 TAKS subject tests, Lancaster had the lowest passing rate in North Texas on 20.