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Bush school reforms get mixed grades

The Texas education system is doing better, but some things the governor touts aren't all they're cracked up to be.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 2000


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- In a neighborhood of pawn shops, check-cashing businesses and run-down homes in faded pastel colors, Stafford Elementary School stands out, an oasis amid poverty.

The school built in 1931 has new classrooms, computer labs and a new library from a $2-million renovation. The Hispanic students from poor families wear preppy school uniforms -- white polo shirts tucked neatly into khaki or navy pants. Seven years ago, Stafford was a struggling school with dismal test scores, a symbol of the have-nots of the Texas school system. Today, Stafford is a star of a reform movement that expects all children to learn, regardless of background.

"We accept no excuses. Our kids are going to be successful," says principal Mary Miller, who has after-school and Saturday programs to prepare students for state tests. If kids don't show for Saturday school, Miller drives through their neighborhoods to find them. Now they can ace the annual tests.

This is the kind of success story that Texas Gov. George W. Bush can point to as he campaigns for president and pushes annual testing and other Texas reforms for the nation's schools. "No child should be left behind" is the Bush education theme.

But school reform is far more complex than that sound bite, and Stafford Elementary is only part of an education story that remains troubling in Texas:

Reading, writing and math scores are up in all grades, but Texas eighth-graders are struggling with social studies and most students are flunking the state's Algebra I test. Scores on the SAT college entrance test have fallen since Bush took office. Minority students have improved but still lag behind white students in achievement. Teacher salaries remain below the national average, despite increases. And the stress of annual testing has, for some, become unbearable.

"We're going mad," said Annette Scott, an educator for 30 years who is now principal of John H. Reagan High School on Austin's northeast side.

Dingy brown on the outside, the school is in a poor neighborhood where many immigrant families don't speak English. Nearly all of Scott's students are poor; half are black, half are Hispanic. The school wears the label "low performing" because of its high percentage of dropouts.

"I chose to be here. I have always wanted to work with the kids who are perceived as the have-nots. I have dedicated my life to that," Scott says.

She believes in the education reform movement's philosophy: All children can learn and tests should be used to measure progress. But she thinks Texas has gone overboard with its annual reading, writing and math tests in third through eighth and 10th grades.

"That's all we do is test," she says. "It is not about getting an education. It is about how well you do on the test."

A massive system

For parents who know Florida's public school system -- 67 school districts -- the Texas system would seem like a colossal maze: More than 1,000 school districts. More than 7,000 schools. Some 4-million students in preschool through 12th grade.

Bush became governor in 1995, inheriting the massive system after a tumultuous time.

By then, a court fight in the Edgewood school district, where Stafford Elementary is located, had made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, exposing shameful differences in funding for schools in rich and poor districts. The court ruled in 1989 that Texas' school financing system violated the state Constitution, forcing lawmakers to distribute money more fairly.

In the mid 1980s, lawmakers approved testing and other school reforms, trying to change the reputation of a state where football, not academics, had always been king.

But by the time Bush got into the Governor's Mansion, only 53 percent of public school students could pass state tests in reading, writing and math. The once-segregated system still had a reputation for expecting less of poor, minority children.

This year, 80 percent of students passed the reading, writing and math tests. Black students in Texas scored higher than blacks around the country on a national math test for fourth-graders in 1996, as well as a national writing test for eighth-graders in 1998.

Under Bush, the Legislature increased spending on public schools, raised teacher salaries, invested heavily in preschool programs, passed legislation to end social promotion -- the practice of passing unprepared students on to the next grade -- and supported a top Bush initiative to make sure all children could read at grade level or higher at the end of third grade.

A graduate of the exclusive Phillips Academy, a private boarding school in Andover, Mass., Bush sent his own two girls to a public high school in Austin.

Difficulties linger

Yet problems remain in Texas.

These days, Bush the presidential candidate sells his education accomplishments around the country with deep sincerity -- and the help of a top-notch public relations team.

The governor's office, the presidential campaign headquarters, and the Texas Education Agency are masterful at highlighting the best and downplaying the worst about Texas schools.

Some examples:

TEXAS LEADS THE NATION. The governor's office touts that "Texas leads the nation when it comes to improving public schools." That refers in part to a study by the Rand Corp., a policy and research group that analyzed scores from seven national math and reading exams between 1990 and 1996.

Rand did conclude that Texas and North Carolina students have shown the most improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests for fourth- and eighth-graders.

But the study also concluded that Texas ranked 27th of 44 states in average scores on those tests. And it cautioned that improvements can reflect policies dating back to the early 1980s through 1996 -- which, for the most part, would be before Bush took office.

The governor's office issued a written response to a Times question about Texas' No. 27 rating: "Texas has a large and diverse population with a large number of children from low-income households and many children with limited proficiency in English. Yet Texas students continue to make greater improvements than students do in other large states like California and New York."

NO CHILD SHOULD BE LEFT BEHIND. A campaign position paper says Bush considers it a "scandal" that the national achievement gap -- the difference between white and minority, and rich and poor student test scores -- is wide, or has grown wider.

But Bush's own record in this area is questionable.

The achievement gap on state tests has been shrinking, but it remains a problem: This year, 89 percent of white students in Texas passed the state's reading, writing and math tests, compared with 67 percent of blacks and 72 percent of Hispanics.

And a Times review of national reading and math tests since 1990 shows that Texas has made no progress on closing the gap. Students aren't prepped for national tests as they are for state tests.

In one instance, the achievement gap actually has widened: In 1998, the average reading score for white fourth-graders taking the NAEP reading test was about 35 points higher than the score for black students; in 1992, the difference was 24 points.

Margaret La Montagne, Bush's senior adviser on education, said Texas still has work to do in closing the achievement gap. "We say we're pleased, but we're not satisfied," she said.

RECORD NUMBER OF TEXANS TAKE SAT. The Texas Education Agency praises the "all-time high" number of students taking the SAT, saying it shows strong interest on the part of Texas students to attend college.

But the number of high school graduates has been increasing as well, and the percentage of students taking the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams has been declining during Bush's tenure.

The average SAT score for public school students has gone down as well. It was 995 when Bush took office; 990 this year. The score for all Texas students, which includes private and religious school students, was 993 this year -- below the national average and one of the lowest scores in the nation.

By contrast, Florida's average SAT score for all students was 998 this year; the score for public school students was 994.

Only 45 percent of students tested could pass a Texas exam in Algebra I this year, according to the state education agency. And more than half of the 1999 graduates completed Texas' "minimum" high school program of 22 credits -- less rigorous than the 24 credits recommended for college.

State officials say education reform focused initially on younger children, but has begun to shift to older students.

This summer, the state Board of Education approved new requirements to ensure high school students take geometry, physics and chemistry classes, and pass a tougher test before they can graduate.

Still unhappy

Donna Haschke, vice president of the Texas State Teachers Association, recently saw a Bush campaign ad touting education improvements in the state.

"I just kind of sat there and laughed," said Haschke, whose union is backing Vice President Al Gore in the presidential race. "Basically (Bush) is taking credit for all the gains Texas students have made."

State testing and other major education reforms date back to the early to mid 1980s, said Haschke, who taught school in Austin for 20 years.

In 1983, Democratic Gov. Mark White appointed a committee led by Dallas billionaire Ross Perot to study education. That led to smaller class sizes for children in lower grades, teacher raises, and the controversial "no pass-no play" rule that prohibited students from participating in extracurricular activities unless they passed their courses.

"I think the important thing that could be said is that almost all the heavy lifting was done by the Democrats," said White, now in the security business in Houston. "I think the main credit Mr. Bush can take is that he did not turn his back on education."

Indeed, Haschke praises Bush for making education a top priority and not vetoing a recent $3,000 teacher pay raise, even though he favored a smaller increase. Still, average teacher pay of $37,730 is lower than the national average, according to the teacher's union. The governor's office points out that Texas has a lower cost of living than other states and less-experienced teachers.

La Montagne, Bush's education adviser, said the governor is not trying to take all the credit for education improvements. But he has overseen a tough school accountability system that has made a difference in Texas:

Test results are published for the public to see. Schools and school districts get good to embarrassing ratings -- exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low performing -- based on test scores and factors such as dropout rates.

Schools that do well or improve get cash awards. Schools where children do poorly must improve or face closure by the state. If it sounds familiar, it is. Florida has a similar accountability system under Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida has the FCAT. Texas has TAAS, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Texas students take reading and math tests in third, fifth, sixth and seventh grades, and reading, writing and math tests in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades. Eighth-graders also take science and social studies tests, and students must pass the 10th grade test to get a diploma.

The state expects students in every group -- black, Hispanic, white and economically disadvantaged -- to pass the tests, not just the overall student population.

This is the kind of system Bush wants for the nation's schools.

In a sprawling state where there seems to be no shortage of strong opinion, the testing has inspired debate and even organized resistance in Texas.

"There is a very definite group of reform-minded people from around the state that are not happy with the way the TAAS has affected education in Texas," said Susan Sarhady, president of a group called the Plano Parental Rights Council. The group has been fighting the Plano school system north of Dallas over math curriculum and other issues.

"It's good that we have some kind of measure," said Sarhady, who has a third- and a ninth-grader in public schools. "The TAAS, however, has taken over public education in Texas. In many cases, there are wonderful social studies and history and geography things that don't get taught anymore, because it's not tested on TAAS."

In Alvin, south of Houston, Carol Holst pulled her fifth-grader out of public school this year because of the constant stress over tests and the unending drills for TAAS.

"The test prep begins in kindergarten -- it's horrible," Holst said.

She now homeschools her son and heads a new group: Parents United to Reform TAAS Testing.

But back in San Antonio, the Edgewood district was celebrating its test scores this summer.

For the first time, the district as a whole got a "recognized" rating from the state. And three schools, including Stafford Elementary, got an exemplary rating.

At Stafford Elementary, principal Mary Miller says she wasn't satisfied with her own public school education in Texas, and she wants more for her students -- even it means drilling them for state tests.

"It is improving education," Miller said about the school reform movement in Texas. "And God knows education needs improvement."

- Researcher Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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