TEA gets excuses, excuses; State finds merit in 62 school rating appeals, creativity in others

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

None actually claimed a dog ate their homework.

But the Texas schools that appealed their subpar state ratings this year offered up a remarkable variety of explanations and excuses – some sensible, others more notable for their creativity.

Schools blamed their performance on everything from an errant fire alarm to a student going into labor – and, in one case, parent sabotage.

“There are certainly some appeals that we think have very little merit,” said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability at the Texas Education Agency. “But we look at each one closely.”

In all, 160 schools or districts appealed their ratings this year – a fraction of the more than 9,000 ratings TEA hands out annually. The agency approved 62 appeals, often moving a school one rung up the ratings ladder: unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of each district’s appeals letter and the agency’s yea-or-nay response.

The state ratings system is based largely on the TAKS test scores of specific subgroups such as black, Hispanic, white and low-income students. A school must produce a given passing rate in each group to earn a certain rating.

Every year, hundreds of schools fall just a few students short of the bar. And many start searching for ways to massage the numbers.

One way is to play with racial boundaries – squeezing students from one subgroup to another.

For instance, Houston’s North Forest ISD appealed the ratings of seven schools, all of which received the lowest possible rating, academically unacceptable. One campus, Kirby Middle School, fell short because of poor performance among Hispanic students in reading and writing.

In its appeal, North Forest argued that several passing students who had been counted as black were actually Hispanic – just enough to edge Hispanic passing rates above the state’s bar.

TEA rejected that claim – along with all of North Forest’s appeals. In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley noted that two of the allegedly Hispanic students had been counted as black each of the previous seven years.

“We can go back and check. They can’t just make a change just for this year,” Dr. Cloudt said.

Other schools look for ways to remove failing students from the data. Gilmore Elementary School in Clear Creek ISD fell one passing student short of exemplary, so it argued for eliminating the scores of a student who “was exhibiting violent behavior” in the weeks leading up to test day.

The school tested him anyway. But after seeing his scores, officials decided that “in retrospect, this may not have been in [the student’s] best interest.” TEA rejected that argument.

A plea for maternity

Instead of removing a failing student, Fort Worth Can! Academy tried to create a passing one. The charter school was rated academically unacceptable – but it was only one student short of acceptable. One teenage girl was set to take the state test for special-education students but went into labor before she could. The school argued that it should be able to count her as a passing student.

“Our campus is in the unique position of being on the teetering point” of being acceptable, Superintendent Robert Ward wrote. TEA rejected the appeal.

At Jane Long Middle School in Bryan, a fire alarm went off during the social studies TAKS exam. Bryan officials argued that the alarm had distracted the school’s black students, whose scores had fallen short of the acceptable bar.

TEA officials denied the claim, pointing out that the majority of students had performed better in social studies than the year before. “This indicates the inability to focus was not widespread,” Dr. Neeley wrote.

Some mercy shown

State officials announce preliminary school ratings in early August each year. Schools have about two weeks to come up with an appeal, and TEA spends more than a month checking the facts and determining which should be approved. A three-person outside panel makes recommendations, which are then sent to Dr. Neeley for the final say.

“With a very high-stakes accountability system, I think we have to take care evaluating every appeal and to look at the legitimacy of what they’re appealing,” Dr. Cloudt said. “It’s important for the credibility of the system that people know we will listen to what they have to say and evaluate it as fairly as we can.”

A handful of schools that didn’t like their students’ grades on essays simply asked for new scores. TEA allows districts to appeal to the state’s testing company, NCS Pearson, for another read of essays they feel deserved higher grades.

Angleton ISD, for example, asked for three students’ essays to be reviewed. NCS Pearson raised one grade, which was enough to push Westside Elementary from recognized to exemplary.

“Grading writing is obviously a very subjective process,” said Angleton Superintendent Heath Burns. “Did Westside receive extra attention because they missed their mark? Probably so.”

Some districts laid no claim to grading errors – they simply asked for mercy.

Midlothian ISD would have been rated recognized had it not been for its black students’ scores in math. Districtwide, 59 out of 94 black students passed; the district needed 61. Midlothian’s appeal argued that the recognized label better fit the district than the acceptable tag TEA had assigned.

“I just felt like I had to bring that to their attention, how close we were,” said Judy Walling, Midlothian’s assistant superintendent for instruction, who crafted the appeal.

The appeal was denied, although Dr. Neeley wrote that she was “sympathetic.”

In some cases, districts had only each other to blame for ratings woes.

Last year, one student left Harwell Middle School in Edinburg and transferred to a public school in McAllen. But McAllen officials forgot to mention the student’s existence in its regular enrollment reports to the state.

As a result, that student was counted as a dropout – and Harwell Middle was rated unacceptable because it had exactly one more dropout than was allowed. Harwell’s appeal was granted.

But another Edinburg school wasn’t as lucky. Esparza Elementary School fell short of recognized status because one too many low-income students failed the science test.

The district argued that one of those failing students shouldn’t have been considered poor because the student’s father had gotten a new job that paid more. The district even sent the father’s pay schedules to TEA in an attempt to have its rating boosted. TEA didn’t bite.

Parental interference?

Perhaps the most extreme one-student appeal came in Rio Vista ISD, near Cleburne. A fourth-grader who consistently got good grades had answered “A” to every multiple-choice question on a practice TAKS test. According to school officials, the student’s parents had encouraged the child to sabotage the TAKS.

“My mom says [the principal] and the school are rewarded for doing well on the TAKS test and they shouldn’t be rewarded because they haven’t done a good job,” the child told a teacher. According to the appeal, that student was the difference between acceptable and recognized.

TEA denied the appeal. It did not rule on how the child’s test should be counted, but it pointed out that the school would still have fallen just short of recognized.

One thing all the appeals had in common: They sought a higher rating.

Dr. Cloudt said she remembered only one case, several years ago, when a district argued for its rating to be lowered.

“Somebody wrote in and said: ‘We shouldn’t have been recognized. We should have been acceptable,'” she said.

She couldn’t remember which district that was.

OBITUARY: Diane Hamilton; Spirited secretary at The News

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12B

Diane Hamilton, a feisty and funny secretary in the newsroom of The Dallas Morning News, died Christmas morning at Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie.

She was 52 and had faced a yearlong battle with cervical cancer.

“Diane was a bigger-than-life personality whose presence always filled a room,” said Bob Mong, editor of The News.

Ms. Hamilton was born in Lansing, Mich., and raised in the Detroit suburbs. She moved to Los Angeles after high school, working in the insurance industry before heading to Texas in 1998.

Her fiancĂ©, Tim Whittemore, met her in Los Angeles and was immediately attracted to two things: “Her long dancer’s legs and her sense of humor. She knew how to laugh and how to make other people laugh.” A close third, he said, was her sharp mind.

In Dallas, she began work at The News as an executive secretary, working with many of the newspaper’s top editors. She supported their work and that of journalists around the newsroom. Among her responsibilities was the annual assembly of award entries for journalism competitions such as the Pulitzer Prize.

“I can’t tell you how many times she knew the answer to a question or knew how to get things done when no one else seemed to,” said Walt Stallings, the paper’s senior deputy managing editor.

Ms. Hamilton, tall and lean, was a dancer and an athlete. Her cancer diagnosis in February made it harder for her to play golf or dance the cha-cha, two favorite pursuits. But it did not dim her lively spirit.

Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Whittemore lived together for a decade. They decided to marry two weeks ago, after she had received discouraging news from doctors: The cancer had spread to her spine and she only had a few months left.

They had planned to wed yesterday morning at the Ellis County Courthouse. “We got the license, but we didn’t have time for the ceremony,” Mr. Whittemore said.

Ms. Hamilton is survived by five of her seven brothers – Dan Hamilton of Cleveland, David of Northville, Mich., Patrick of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Ray and Doug, both of Farmington Hills, Mich.

There will be no funeral, but a private gathering will be held Friday. Memorials may be made to the American Cancer Society.

Catholic schools to close for rally; Dallas Diocese giving students, teachers a day to lobby for vouchers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Dallas Catholic school students will get a day off Feb. 7 – and not for an early Ash Wednesday.

Schools will shut down so students and teachers can go to Austin for a rally in favor of school vouchers, which use public dollars to send students to private and religious schools. Other Catholic schools around the state are joining the effort.

The move is a sign that new leaders in the Catholic Church – which would probably be the biggest beneficiary of any voucher program – plan to be much more active in lobbying the Legislature than in previous years.

“There are a couple new archbishops,” said Charles LeBlanc, the Dallas Diocese’s director of schools. “We have a new director of the Texas Catholic Conference. And I’m impressed with the energy.”

Vouchers have been a controversial topic for the last several legislative sessions.

Supporters say they allow children to escape failing public schools and give parents choices. Opponents say they take money away from public schools that need it and threaten the separation of church and state.

“The vast majority of Texas parents, Catholic or otherwise, send their children to public schools and want those public schools to be supported by the Legislature, not robbed by a voucher scheme,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes vouchers.

The Catholic Church is by far the largest sponsor of Texas private schools, with more than 80,000 students and 280 campuses statewide. Many are concentrated in poor urban areas – which are also home to many of the low-performing public schools that could be affected by a voucher pilot program.

Many Dallas Catholic-school parents learned of the rally Tuesday, in the form of e-mails from school officials. Christ the King School, for example, told parents the school “apologizes for this inconvenience, but our Dallas Diocese has just mandated Feb. 7 to be a student holiday.”

“We want to support parental choice in education, and we are taking the day off to do that,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

Other dioceses

Other Texas dioceses were still determining how to respond to the rally. Donald Miller, superintendent of schools for the Fort Worth Diocese, said that the diocese would support the rally but that officials are “still working on the scale of our appearance.”

“We want to support the rally and make our presence known and advocate for our families,” he said. The diocese has not yet decided whether to close school Feb. 7.

Austin Catholic schools are also considering closing, according to their superintendent, Ned Vanders, who said the decision could be left up to individual campuses. Austin Catholic schools have about 325 empty seats this school year that could be filled by voucher students, he said.

“I think there may be some legislators that might be leaning toward this, or open to it, and we want to let them know how we feel,” he said.

Representatives of other Catholic dioceses around the state did not return phone calls seeking their plans for the rally.

“There’s never been a loud voice in the past from the bishops on the issue,” said Robert Aguirre, a voucher advocate and one of the rally’s organizers. “But I think that’s changing.”

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said she is not surprised to see Catholic leadership becoming more active on the issue.

“In years past, although the stance has always been strong for school choice, leaders and bishops have urged parents to step out into the public arena and be advocates for the issue,” Dr. Ristau said. “I think now, the leaders and bishops are taking that step themselves.”

Ms. Miller, the voucher opponent, said the results of November’s legislative elections would make it harder for a voucher program to be passed in the next session, which begins next month.

But Mr. Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman and chairman of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, said he sees growing support for vouchers. Catholic schools are growing in Texas, driven primarily by the influx of Hispanics into the state. The voucher battle expected in the next session could be an indicator of those Hispanics’ political reach.

“It’s an issue of social justice for low-income people,” he said.

He said he sent letters to each of the state’s Catholic bishops, informing them about the rally and inviting them to join in the effort. Mr. Aguirre, himself a Catholic, said he was surprised to hear that the Dallas Diocese was canceling classes for the rally – “surprised and delighted.”

Critics of plan

But the decision to shut down doesn’t sit well with all Catholics. Nicole LeBlanc, a lay leader in a Dallas Catholic parish, said she was “fuming” when she heard about the Dallas Diocese’s decision.

“I just don’t think that schools should be closed and remove a day of education just to support the church’s political agenda,” said Ms. LeBlanc, who is not related to Dr. LeBlanc. She said the Catholic Church takes many stances on political issues – against the death penalty, against abortion, in favor of services to the poor – but doesn’t shut down school for those issues.

“We don’t cancel school for Roe v. Wade Day in January – why should we cancel for this?” said Ms. LeBlanc, who tutors at a neighborhood public school and opposes vouchers. “I think the bottom line here is money.”

Dr. Ristau said that she could understand that point of view but that the Austin rally would give students “a wonderful opportunity to see civics in action.”

Cheating inquiry clears 592 schools; State’s use of campus self-reporting in TAKS investigation questioned

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Nearly 600 Texas public schools have been cleared of suspicions of cheating, state officials said Thursday, leaving 105 other schools still under investigation.

Texas Education Agency officials cited the clearing of 592 schools as evidence of the integrity of the state’s influential testing system.

“It is imperative that Texans trust our test results and have confidence that they are valid and reliable,” Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said in a prepared statement.

But some question the thoroughness of the agency’s investigation, which relied heavily on self-reported questionnaires filled out by school officials a year and a half after the 2005 tests in question.

“I don’t know how accurate a set of responses you’re going to get from sending people a questionnaire,” said Jason Stephens, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating. “That might be expedient, but if there is something going on, nobody’s going to go out and admit that.”

The investigation stems from a report produced in May by Caveon, a test-security firm. It analyzed schools’ scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and tried to determine which schools had unusual patterns that could suggest cheating.

The report flagged 700 schools for a variety of reasons, including scores that jumped too quickly, answer sheets with too many erasures and students whose answer patterns suggested they might have copied off a classmate.

Differing approaches

After some deliberation, state officials decided this fall to investigate the schools. But the schools received different levels of scrutiny. Sixty-five received on-site visits by teams from the agency, in which investigators interviewed educators and other staff about test security.

Instead, the remaining 635 schools were asked to complete a questionnaire asking about a variety of test-security matters. Topics included school policies on cellphone use, the training provided to test monitors, security measures taken to protect test documents, and the straightforward “Did anything out of the ordinary occur that has not previously been reported?”

A 15-person panel of educators met in Austin about a month ago to go over the questionnaires. They didn’t have access to any other information about the schools – such as why Caveon considered them suspicious, how many students had suspect scores, or how extreme the statistical anomalies were. Instead, panel members were asked to evaluate how completely the questionnaires were filled out and to look for any suspect answers.

Unanswered questions

State officials did not disclose what the schools still under investigation had done to earn that status. But it appears that not answering a portion of the state’s security questionnaire may have played a role.

In Dallas, for example, at least three schools – Carter High, Blair Elementary and Holmes Middle – did not answer all or part of the questionnaire because they had switched principals since the 2005 TAKS tests. All three remain under investigation.

That’s despite the fact that statistical evidence against those schools is not as strong as that against other Dallas schools that were cleared.

At South Oak Cliff High, for example, more than 230 TAKS answer sheets were unusually similar to others, which suggests answer copying, according to a News analysis. That’s more than 10 percent of all tests taken at South Oak Cliff that year and far above the state average.

By contrast, the analysis flagged only about 6 percent of Carter High’s 2005 TAKS answer sheets. But Carter remains under investigation, and South Oak Cliff has been cleared.

Schools that received an on-site investigation did not appear to fare any worse than their peers in the state’s analysis. Of the 65 visited, only two remain under investigation: Theresa B. Lee Academy in Fort Worth and Winona High in East Texas.

It’s also unclear how schools were selected for visits. No schools in the state’s two largest districts, Houston and Dallas, were visited, although they had by far the state’s largest number of flagged schools. But 16 schools in Plano and Rockwall received on-site visits; all were cleared.

For schools that remain under investigation, there were many unanswered questions.

“We don’t know anything you don’t know,” said Tam Jones, an assistant superintendent in Crowley ISD, which has two schools still under investigation. “We sent off a stack of paper two inches thick awhile back, and we’ve just been waiting to hear what was going to happen.”

Both Crowley schools were flagged for large gains in test scores, the type of anomaly cited by Caveon that has drawn the most scrutiny.

Brad Lancaster, assistant superintendent in Allen, said he wasn’t surprised that his district’s three schools on the list were cleared.

“We knew we could explain the gains our students had made,” he said.

Mac Bernd, Arlington’s superintendent, said he believed that the questionnaires could be a good way to detect wrongdoing.

“People are not going to perjure themselves when they fill out a government document,” he said. “The penalties for that get really severe.”

All Arlington schools were cleared by the TEA on Thursday.

“My problem with the whole thing is that it seemed our schools were being penalized for doing too well” on the TAKS, Dr. Bernd said. “The explanations we got from the schools were very credible.”

Dr. Bernd and Allen ISD’s Dr. Lancaster said the TEA should have some way to police schools for cheating, but they agreed that Caveon’s methodology was too broad.

“TEA is between a rock and a hard place,” Dr. Lancaster said. “There’s clearly some stuff going on that shouldn’t be going on. But it’s hard to catch those without a net so big that it catches other schools too.”

Some of the 105 remaining schools will receive on-site visits from investigators after the holidays, TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. The agency hopes to conclude all investigations by the end of January.

Investigations drag

The calendar has perhaps been the investigations’ biggest roadblock. The tests in question were administered in spring 2005. Caveon was hired in June 2005 and promised it could turn out results in six weeks.

However, for reasons TEA has not made clear, Caveon’s findings were not announced until May 2006. It took several more months for the agency to determine how it would deal with Caveon’s findings.

The result is that more than 16 months passed between the test’s administration and the TEA’s first investigations.

“Most people can’t remember who they sat next to yesterday, much less who they sat next to in April 2005,” Ms. Marchman said. “It makes it difficult when you want to have documentation or witnesses, or hopefully both. People can’t remember that far back.”

The state’s test-security task force is finalizing a series of recommendations to Dr. Neeley, the state commissioner, about test security and how best to look for cheaters – if at all. Neither Caveon nor the agency has analyzed the 2006 test scores, now 8 months old, and it is unclear whether they will ever be analyzed.

But Ms. Marchman said it is unlikely there will be a wait like this year’s again.

“It really concerned the task force, the amount of time that has passed,” she said. “They think that’s not acceptable.”

Family’s schools failing again; 2 SE Dallas charters in financial trouble, at risk of state intervention

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Barely a year after receiving a clean bill of health, the North Texas charter schools run by the Belknap family are in trouble again.

State education officials are investigating allegations of financial impropriety, employees are being laid off to cut costs, and the schools are at risk of state intervention. Officials say the schools should be able to finish out the school year; beyond that is less clear.

“We don’t know how bad things are because they don’t have a good set of books,” said Karen Case, a former Texas Education Agency official who was hired by the schools Tuesday as the new part-time superintendent. “But they are in serious financial trouble.”

The Belknap family operates A+ Academy and Inspired Vision Academy, both in southeastern Dallas. Together they enroll more than 1,500 students, some of whom attended the recently shuttered Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

The family previously ran Rylie Faith Family Academy, but state officials closed that school in 2003 after years of low test scores.

Don and Karen Lewis Belknap, the schools’ co-founders, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Charter schools are public schools funded with state taxpayer dollars but without the traditional governance structure of an elected school board. They have proved controversial because many are run by people with little experience in education or management. Academic performance in many charter schools is poor, and state oversight is limited. Laws can make it hard for the state to close even schools with serious financial and academic problems.

Since opening in 1999, the Belknap schools have received well over $38 million in state funds.

Under scrutiny

The Belknaps have been under scrutiny since their schools opened. Previous investigations have found that the schools operated without anything approximating a modern accounting system, writing checks to cash when money was needed. They intermingled public and private businesses, at one point setting up a family member’s chiropractic office on campus rent-free. The schools have also produced some of the state’s worst academic performances.

State officials began a series of interventions in 2000, hiring retired public school superintendent Jack Ammons to advise the Belknaps – and later giving him veto power over most of the family’s decisions. The schools had to pay off significant debts, like the $100,000 it owed the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid payroll taxes.

The schools brought in a new superintendent, Gerald “Rosie” Rosebure, who had experience leading traditional school districts.

Having seen progress, Dr. Ammons released the schools from state oversight in 2005. Soon after, Dr. Rosebure resigned for a job closer to his home on Lake Tawakoni. Both men thought the schools were improving.

“When I left we didn’t owe anybody anything – we even had a little fund balance,” Dr. Rosebure said this week. “And I thought the academics were improving. There were some pretty good teachers there.”

But it appears some of the old problems have returned.

The TEA’s financial audit division began investigating about two months ago, according to Rita Chase, the division’s director. She would not detail the allegations. A preliminary report detailing the agency’s findings is nearing completion, she said, but it could be February before a final report is ready for public release.

Problems with spending

The more immediate concern is paying the bills. Dr. Ammons said that the schools owe roughly $700,000 to vendors and had also taken on additional debt.

“There has been indiscriminate spending – that’s the big problem,” Dr. Ammons said. “They also definitely have too many employees.”

He is again serving in an informal supervisory role, along with a state-appointed role he has overseeing another troubled charter school the family runs in El Paso.

At least three employees were laid off Tuesday, and at least three others resigned, according to Dr. Ammons.

The Belknaps have been criticized in the past for putting family members on the schools’ payroll – such as the cousin they put in charge of special education who had previously worked as a cashier at McDonald’s and Kmart. None of the individuals who lost their jobs Tuesday were family members, Dr. Ammons said.

The schools have not been academic successes. At A+ Academy, for instance, just 43 percent of students passed TAKS last spring. That’s an improvement from 30 percent in 2005, but still well below the state average of 67 percent. The school includes pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

‘We want to do it right’

Dr. Case, the new superintendent, formerly led the TEA’s disciplinary arm and has years of experience with troubled schools. She said she believes the Belknaps want to improve.

“Mrs. Belknap said that specifically to me,” she said. “I was really surprised she would be willing to hire me, since I have served the role of enforcer with this school before. She told me, ‘We want to do it right.'”

Dr. Case and Dr. Ammons said they believe the schools should be able to complete the school year, albeit with some substantial cuts in spending.

“Basically there’s just been too much spending on nonessential parts of the school,” Dr. Ammons said. “That has to stop if they’re going to survive. And I mean that. Not only will we have a hard time meeting the daily expenses, we’ve got to make up all that we owe.”

The future, however, will depend on the TEA audit and the agency’s willingness to keep the schools open.

Some in Austin have expressed a willingness to be more aggressive with troubled charter schools, which have traditionally proved difficult to shut down.

“We’re kind of in a corrective mode right now,” Dr. Ammons said. “But it depends on TEA and what they find. As long as I’m there, it’ll stay open. We will cut where it’s necessary to keep the doors open.”

Kids fail TAKS, still pass; Districts vary widely on promoting 5th-graders who flunked test

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

For fifth-graders having trouble with the TAKS test, everything comes down to a familiar factor: Location, location, location.

Texas’ law against social promotion is supposed to set uniform standards, requiring students to pass both the math and reading TAKS to be promoted to the sixth grade. But districts are given wide leeway in deciding who actually gets held back, and – according to newly released data from 2005, the most recent available – they use it in vastly different ways.

For instance, the Klein school district in suburban Houston promoted 98.5 percent of its fifth-graders who had failed the TAKS reading test repeatedly. Wichita Falls schools, in contrast, promoted just 4.8 percent.

Austin ISD promoted 90 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the TAKS math test. But the Georgetown district – a 20-minute drive away – promoted only 20 percent.

“There seems to be a lot of variation in the way people interpret the law,” said Dawson Orr, Wichita Falls’ superintendent.

Despite their divergent results, officials in several districts said they are working within the law, which leaves the final decision about promotion to the child’s parents and educators.

In all, Texas schools ended up promoting about 70 percent of its worst-performing fifth-graders through a tool known as the grade placement committee.

“Our parents very much want to see their children move on and have those upper-grade experiences,” said Holly Hughes, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Clear Creek ISD near Houston. “We work hard with each family to determine what’s best for each child.”

Promotion without skills

Social promotion is the practice of pushing kids along to the next grade regardless of their academic abilities. In the 1990s, as Texas developed its testing system, some legislators believed students were being promoted through the system without the basic reading and math skills they need to succeed.

So in 1999, then-Gov. George Bush signed into law the Student Success Initiative, whose effects begin with the Class of 2013 as it makes its way through the Texas public schools.

When those children reached third grade, in 2003, they had to pass the TAKS reading test to be promoted. Two years later, they had to pass both the math and reading TAKS as fifth-graders. And in 2008, they will have to pass the eighth-grade test, again in math and reading.

The policy was not imposed without controversy. Many educators said retaining students damaged their future potential by isolating them socially and increasing the chance that they eventually would drop out of high school. A number of studies have shown that being held back a year is one of the strongest predictors of whether a child will drop out.

But the law includes an out. Even if a student has failed the TAKS test three times, the student can still be promoted by the grade placement committee – a three-person group made up of the child’s parent, teacher and principal.

“The process puts a lot of weight on one data point” – a TAKS score, said Nancy Tarvin, executive director of elementary curriculum in Leander ISD near Austin. “So I’m glad we have a grade placement committee that can look beyond that one data point and make a sound decision for a child.”

Leander is among the school districts that use the committee’s promotion power the most. In 2005, Leander promoted 94 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the reading TAKS and 91 percent of those who repeatedly failed in math.

Ms. Tarvin said those figures are not the result of any districtwide policy. “We look at each child individually,” she said. “We get the folks who know the student the best together and make the decision on whether a student will be successful in the next grade. There’s no district line.”

According to state documents, the grade placement committee is required to determine whether the student, “given additional accelerated instruction, is likely to perform on grade level during the next school year.” The decision to promote must be unanimous.

Statewide, schools were optimistic about their kids’ abilities. In 2005, they used grade placement committees to promote failing fifth-graders about 70 percent of the time. That’s significantly higher than the rate for third-graders, where the figure is 49 percent.

Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said it may be that schools are worried about the social implications of retaining students as they grow older. But he believes that many students promoted by grade placement committees are probably being poorly served, no matter how well-meaning the school’s intentions.

He studied the results of a similar policy against social promotion for third-graders in Florida and found that students forced to repeat the grade ended up learning more over the next two years than those who were promoted.

“Put it this way: Students who were promoted are leaving fifth grade with less knowledge than students who were retained have entering fifth grade,” he said.

The wide variation in how districts used their promotion power shows that educators are not skilled at consistently picking which students would benefit from retention and which would not, he said.

‘The law is the law’

Dr. Orr, the Wichita Falls superintendent, said he dislikes having to retain students because of the increased dropout risk. But his district retains at a high rate because he believes the law requires it to.

“I don’t think the law is particularly wise, but it’s not vague,” he said. “The law is the law, and we’re going to work with it in good faith.”

In districts that have been the most aggressive about retention, policies are affecting enrollment patterns.

In the school year that finished this spring, Wichita Falls had a nearly equal number of students in first through eighth grades – somewhere between 1,070 and 1,127. The only exception was the sixth grade, which had only 971 students. That’s the Class of 2013, which has already had its weakest students siphoned off twice.

The big challenge, most agree, will come in 2008, when the Student Success Initiative tackles eighth grade. Public schools in Texas and elsewhere have had substantial success in raising elementary-school scores over the last decade. But older kids have proven more challenging.

For Texans, that’s been particularly true in math. Only 68 percent of eighth-graders passed the math TAKS last spring. That compares with passing rates of 90 percent in third grade and over 80 percent in fifth grade.

In addition, holding back an older child is generally considered substantially riskier than with an 8-year-old. Shane Jimerson, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies retention policy, said that while policymakers may think social promotion is a problem, there’s no evidence that retaining a child is any improvement.

“A century of research reveals the deleterious effects of grade retention,” he said.

COLUMN: Getting real on dropouts; Mass hirings alone won’t fix problem; invest in a strong staff

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

One of the concepts newspaper readers sometimes have trouble with is the divide between the editorial staff and the news staff.

The folks who write our editorials, on the fourth floor here at The Dallas Morning News, are good people. But they don’t have any say in what I write, and I don’t have any say in what they write.

It won’t surprise you that we sometimes disagree. So excuse me while I get out my bone-picking tools.

In an editorial last week, they addressed a big issue: How to keep more of Texas high school students in school and marching toward graduation. Texas has a lot of dropouts every year – depending on how you do the math, more than any other state. Lots of those are Hispanic kids with poor English skills.

The editorial board’s first recommendation: The Legislature should give more money to schools so they can hire more bilingual teachers and cut class sizes.

The logic seems impeccable: A teacher can do a better job with 18 students than she can with 30. So shrink classes and you end up with better results, right?

Unfortunately – no matter how well intentioned the idea – I suspect that going on a hiring spree wouldn’t have the impact some hope for.

Cutting class size means you have to hire a lot of new teachers. And that means giving jobs to a lot of people who might not be the most qualified.

The most famous case was California, which in 1996 began a massive, multibillion-dollar effort to reduce class size. A few years later, the state hired a blue-ribbon panel to analyze the impact all that spending had had.

The discouraging result: Researchers couldn’t find any evidence that smaller class sizes had boosted scores – even a smidge.

Whatever benefits were gained through smaller classes were canceled out by the fact that schools had to hire 29,000 new elementary teachers in three years. And a lot of the new hires weren’t particularly qualified.

Before the initiative, 1.8 percent of teachers were uncertified. After the hiring spree, 12.5 percent weren’t. And because the most qualified teachers often prefer to work in the relative comforts of the suburbs, poor and minority students were disproportionately hard hit.

If you’re looking to increase the number of bilingual teachers in North Texas schools, you’ll run into the same problem. At the risk of offending the unemployed, if you’re a qualified bilingual teacher in North Texas, chances are extremely good that you already have a job.

Just to fill their current positions, districts are already being forced to hire questionably qualified bilingual teachers. They’re hiring Hispanics with poor English skills, or whites and blacks with poor Spanish skills. Or else they’re hiring people with good language ability but little or no training in how to teach.

Talk of a teacher shortage is usually overblown. There are plenty of good history and English teachers who can’t find jobs, for instance. But a decent bilingual teacher is a hot property. There aren’t a lot of them sitting on the sidelines.

Adding a lot of new bilingual teaching positions would mean hiring even more people with sketchy qualifications.

So what should we do? I’ll throw out two ideas.

First, invest in training programs that can build a better pool of potential bilingual teachers.

There are very few issues that will have a greater impact on Texas’ future than how its Spanish-speaking students are educated. And there would be worse ways to spend the state’s money than on an aggressive campaign to give people the language and teaching skills they need to succeed in the classroom. Consider it a Marshall Plan for education – a big investment that pays off for decades to come.

If you want to hire more qualified bilingual teachers, first you’ve got to create them.

(For the record, the folks who write our editorials agree.)

Second, consider investing in people who can help kids but don’t suffer from the supply-and-demand problems that bilingual teachers do.

For instance, a good school counselor can do a lot to help kids stay on course. But at the same time schools have been grabbing people off the street to be bilingual teachers, they’ve been cutting back on counselors. It’s not unheard of to have 1,000 students assigned to a single counselor.

The result is there are often more qualified counselors without jobs than there are bilingual teachers. Putting some of them back to work could help keep kids connected.

All else equal, smaller classes are better than big ones, and more teachers are better than fewer. But if Texas wants to make a big investment, it should be realistic about the potential returns.

COLUMN: Is TAKS approach fair? Weakest kids written off while schools focus on state accountability

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

You probably didn’t notice, but Texas schools just celebrated a big holiday.

I doubt anyone brought cupcakes to class, but Oct. 27 looms large in principals’ offices and the halls of administration buildings.

That’s because the last Friday in October is New Kids Stop Mattering Day – the day after which any new students enrolling at your school won’t be counted in next spring’s TAKS scores.

It’s a holiday that makes life easier for teachers and principals wishing for higher test scores. But it also hurts thousands of Texas kids.

Jennifer Booher-Jennings is a Columbia graduate student whose research I’ve written about before. She studies how poorly constructed testing systems can leave some kids without the attention they deserve.

Last year I wrote in this space about her study of a Texas elementary school, where teachers gave enormous help to kids at risk of falling just a few points short of passing TAKS. That’s good.

But that extra help came at the expense of weaker kids – kids who might not pass even with more tutoring and teacher time invested. They were being written off as hopeless – at age 8.

That’s bad. It’s bad because it ignores what would be best for kids – helping the weakest at least as much those on the bubble – and instead does what’s best for the adults. Namely, it boosts a school’s passing rate by going after only the low-hanging fruit.

While working on that study, she noticed something I’ve seen often in Texas: Teachers were very aware of whether kids’ TAKS scores would count against them. They called kids “accountables” and “unaccountables.”

In Texas, the “unaccountables” come primarily from two groups. First are kids in special education – some get counted, but many others don’t. Second are kids who switch schools during the year – the ones who arrive after New Kids Stop Mattering Day.

One teacher at the school Ms. Booher-Jennings studied had mandatory tutoring for all the “accountables” three days a week. The 10 “unaccountables” in her class? They were, in her words, “put on the back burner.”

Here’s a transcript from one grade-level planning meeting Ms. Booher-Jennings sat in on:

Teacher 1: “This kid is not accountable. Do I even need to worry about him?” Teacher 2: “No … don’t worry about him.”

If teachers know that some kids can be safely ignored – given all the test pressures they already deal with – some are going to redirect their attention elsewhere.

She and a colleague, Andrew Beveridge, have authored a new study that looks at the impact of excluding students from the accountability system.

The numbers excluded for special education are bigger. But in some cases, the late-arrival totals are significant, too. For example, in 2005, Dallas’ Pease Elementary excluded 20 percent of its kids because of their arrivals after the October deadline. So did City Park Elementary.

And in many cases, the kids being excluded for arriving late are disproportionately poor and minority. At Seagoville Elementary, 30.8 percent of black students weren’t counted. At Daniel Webster Elementary, 23.8 percent of Hispanics were eliminated.

All those exclusions have an impact on test scores. In a paper to be released in a few months, Ms. Booher-Jennings and Mr. Beveridge analyzed test scores for all Houston ISD schools. They found that if every Houston student had been tested – and all their scores counted – the district’s performance would have plunged.

Specifically, 37.7 percent of Houston schools would have fallen to a lower state rating because of lower reading scores. Nearly 28 percent of schools would have fallen because of math scores.

I don’t think all teachers give more attention to the “accountables.” And I don’t think the ones who do are evil, or even ill-intentioned. They’re just responding rationally to a system that has the incentives wrong.

Think about your own job. Imagine your boss told you that you were going to be evaluated only on your work with 80 percent of your clients, not on the other 20. Can you be sure you wouldn’t respond accordingly?

There are legitimate fairness issues about counting all kids. There are certainly some kids – the severely mentally disabled, for instance – who shouldn’t be counted. And it may not be fair for a school to be blamed for the poor performance of a child who enrolls 48 hours before test day.

But the current system leaves too much room for kids to be ignored.

This spring, Texas officials tried to gain even more wiggle room – asking the federal government for permission to ignore any kid who wasn’t enrolled in the same school district for two consecutive years. That would have eliminated another 10 percent of kids from the ranks of the counted. The feds said no.

This isn’t an attack on testing. If anything, it’s a validation. It’s proof that testing can be a powerful tool to improve learning. But that means a testing system should count as many kids as it can – not ignore the weakest.

Here’s the question. Is Texas’ testing system designed to give struggling kids the attention they need? Or is it designed to make the adults look good?

COLUMN: Don’t believe the hype about violence at schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

Sometimes the best service the media can provide is a simple message.

Stay calm. Things aren’t that bad.

Whenever newspapers and the networks report on a school shooting – much less a mini-spree of them – the temptation is to think that the world is spiraling out of control.

The cable news networks start frothing for ratings. Up go the on-screen graphics – open-ended fear-mongering like “Is your child in danger?”

Self-appointed school-security experts – looking to make a buck as consultants – start e-mailing reporters about the urgent threat to America’s children.

And legislators, eager for five minutes with Nancy Grace, start overreacting and throwing around dumb ideas.

Everybody wins – except for anyone who wants to point out the truth. Which is that violence in schools has plummeted over the past decade.

It may be hard to think about that when your TV shows a line of Amish buggies rolling in a funeral procession – or when the country has three school shootings in a week’s time. But it’s the truth.

By just about every measure, school violence has been falling steadily since the early 1990s. Federal statistics say incidents of serious school violence were twice as common in 1994 as they were in 2004.

School shootings are extremely rare. There are roughly 125,000 schools in America. If you had 10 Columbines a year – many more than there actually are, of course – you could expect your kid’s school to be hit roughly once every 12,500 years.

Twelve thousand years ago, the Neanderthals were using stone tools, woolly mammoths roamed the earth and humans were a millennium away from inventing agriculture.

And most kids shot in schools aren’t hit by the sort of flashy attacks that make CNN – they’re victims of gang violence or criminal disputes.

In this country, you’re more than 50 times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to die in a school shooting. But strangely, Nancy Grace doesn’t spend much time on the threat from above.

(“Lightning: Is your child in danger?”)

The reason I’m hammering this point home is that moments like now are when a lot of dumb policies are put into place. It’s high season for overreaction.

You may remember that, after the Columbine attacks, for a few months we were told that every kid who listened to Marilyn Manson or dressed like a roadie for The Cure was a ticking time bomb.

The biggest overreaction came in the philosophy that came to dominate school discipline in the 2000s – “zero tolerance.” That’s the idea that schools shouldn’t have any leeway in deciding what happens to a kid who violates a school rule, however harmlessly.

Zero tolerance is how a girl in Shreveport (true story) gets expelled for a year for the crime of having Advil in her purse.

It’s how a kid in Pennsylvania (true story) gets expelled for a year after being caught filing his nails with a miniature Swiss army knife he’d found in a hallway. (“Weapons possession,” of course.)

It’s how a kid in Virginia (again, true story) gets a 10-day suspension for violating the school’s alcohol policy – by bringing mouthwash to school. A series of studies has shown zero-tolerance policies don’t do much to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, they may increase problems by pushing decent kids into a rougher crowd by expelling them or putting them into the juvenile justice system.

But after Columbine, “zero tolerance” was the phrase on everyone’s lips.

The overreactions are already rolling in to last week’s Amish shootings.

Some folks in Pennsylvania are pushing for a law that would require an armed security guard to be stationed outside every one-room Amish schoolhouse in the state.

A legislator in Wisconsin has come up with his own solution: Arm public school teachers with concealed weapons.

Because there’s nothing about an American high school that can’t be made better by a few dozen Glocks, apparently. Let’s give those classroom yelling matches a fightin’ chance to escalate!

His idea earned the legislator, a man named Frank Lasee, spots on CNN and MSNBC on Friday, not to mention what he describes on his Web site as “over 50 interviews in the last two days.” As he told a local reporter last week, no doubt breathlessly: “I am doing media around the world.”

I’m glad he’s gotten the attention he craves.

But to the rest of you, I’ll just repeat:

Stay calm. Things aren’t that bad.

Cotton Bowl ‘ratty,’ but fans want to stay; Fair atmosphere, accessibility, tradition make up for blemishes

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

Oklahoma fan Ed Marburger has been coming to Texas-OU games for 29 years. And the idea of doing it anywhere other than the Cotton Bowl seems as wrong to him as crimson and cream on Sixth Street.

“You’d lose all the festivities and the atmosphere,” the Oklahoma City resident said. “It wouldn’t be the same.”

The football rivals have played at Fair Park since 1929 and have agreed to stay there through 2010. But it’s unclear where the Red River Rivalry will call home after that.

Dallas? Arlington? Austin and Norman?

The new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington is set to open in three years and promises to be the modern, plush facility the city-owned Cotton Bowl decidedly is not. The older stadium’s other major tenant, the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Day, is considering making the move.

And others have pushed for the 106-year-old rivalry to become a home-and-home series.

But for many fans Saturday, taking the game out of its unique environment amid the State Fair of Texas would make it seem like less of an event.

“I don’t think anything in Arlington could be as big a deal as this,” said Annie Schuler, who was finishing off a mustard-topped corny dog as she entered the stadium before kickoff. “I don’t want to go out to the suburbs.”

Several cited the stadium’s 50-yard-line split between teams. “There’s something about having all the opposing fans here,” Mr. Marburger said. “In Norman, we’d have 80,000 of our fans and 5,000 of theirs.”

But don’t confuse the Marburgers’ enthusiasm for blind affection. “The bathrooms,” raised his wife, Joan. “They don’t work.”

The Cotton Bowl has seen some recent renovations, such as the new video scoreboard that made its Texas-OU debut Saturday. More substantial improvements are on the ballot Nov. 7, when Dallas voters will consider a bond issue that includes about $30 million for work on the facility.

If approved, the renovations will raise seating capacity to over 92,000 and improve restrooms, concession stands and the stadium’s sound system. In addition, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit train line to the stadium is scheduled to open in 2009.

City leaders say they’re optimistic that a renovated Cotton Bowl can attract other college football games during the fair, featuring major state and regional powers. But on Saturday, the focus was on keeping Texas-OU in town.

“No way, they can’t move it,” UT junior Danny Thomason said. “It’s ratty, but it’s tradition.”