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The Texas mess

Published December 7, 2003

Even if you believe in miracles, you probably don't expect to find them in public education, where the real success stories usually involve hard work and slow progress. Yet a lot of people bought into the "Texas miracle" - a tale in which old-fashioned classroom accountability and a back-to-basics curriculum produced supposedly dazzling academic gains, especially among that state's minority students.

The "Texas miracle" propelled Rod Paige, the former superintendent of Houston's school system, to Washington as education secretary. It burnished former Texas Gov. George W. Bush's credentials as a compassionate conservative, became a model for the federal No Child Left Behind law and inspired similar testing and accountability systems in states such as Florida.

And, as it turns out, the "Texas miracle" was based on inflated - and in some cases, entirely fraudulent - measures of student achievement.

The rotten foundations of Houston's supposed success story under Paige were exposed months ago. Houston's schools had reported striking improvements in student performance on state-mandated tests. Even more significantly, Houston claimed to have made dramatic progress in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, perhaps the most intractable problem in public education. But Texas education officials discovered earlier this year that the Houston system had cooked its books in various ways. Dropouts and underperforming students were omitted from statistics. The numbers of high school graduates going on to college were inflated. The system even failed to report violent crimes to state authorities.

Now a thorough analysis undertaken by the New York Times shows that the linchpin of the "Houston miracle" - strong student improvement on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills - doesn't match the claims made by Paige and other administrators. When their performance on a national standardized test is compared with their peers', Houston students don't fare so well. In fact, the products of the "Houston miracle" showed less improvement from 1999 to 2002 than students in Los Angeles, where the troubled public school system claims no miracles.

Too many Texas students have a story similar to Rosa Arevelo's. When she graduated from Houston's Jefferson Davis High, Arevelo was honored as a "Texas scholar" on the basis of her performance on state achievement tests. "I had good grades in high school, so I thought I could do well in college," she told the New York Times. "I thought I was getting a good education. I was shocked." Unprepared for the math and writing requirements in classes at the University of Houston, Arevelo dropped out and enrolled in a trade school.

Paige and other officials who trumpeted Houston's illusory achievements should be compelled to explain how fraudulent data made its way into the Houston's district's self-serving academic reports. But the tainting of the "Texas miracle" should have broader repercussions. A great deal of time, money and classroom angst have been diverted to state and national education "reforms" based on the Texas model. In Florida - where Gov. Jeb Bush and state education officials have been known to massage student achievement data in a way that puts the governor's education program in the best possible light - public school students, parents and teachers deserve to know that the disruptive changes they have been asked to make in the name of accountability are based on something more substantial than another state's empty claims.

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