As Texas prepares for the 2003 legislative session, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) reviews pending educational policy reform issues and shares its insights and policy reform recommendations for consideration during the upcoming deliberations.
Texas has long considered itself a national bell-weather state, reflecting – and more recently – initiating important national trends. As in many states around the country, Texas is currently in the throes of significant demographic changes and economic challenges. In the area of public education, some reforms implemented in Texas over the past decade, such as equity in school funding, are beginning to have positive outcomes as a growing number of pupils have shown improvement in educational performance and the gap in achievement among different groups of students has decreased.
Other reforms have been re-visited and, where necessary, curtailed. Examples of these reforms are the state’s decision to limit the number of open-enrollment charter schools, a decision prompted by inadequate performance among many Texas charter school sites.
The state also chose to tighten regulations of disciplinary alternative educational programs, providing increased oversight and monitoring academic performance of students referred. It also increased funding to equalize districts’ abilities to fund school facilities and rejected efforts to divert public tax monies to support private schools.
Despite some progress, however, Texas lags in a number of significant policy areas. Little or no progress was achieved in addressing existing high-stakes testing, school holding power, and access to higher education.
As Texas embarks on its next biennial legislative session, it faces significant new challenges. In contrast to prior debates that focused on how to use the state’s billion-dollar surpluses, the upcoming session is confronted by a $5 billion to $12 billion shortfall (depending on who is reporting).
Compounding the short-term budget crisis is the long-term need to update an antiquated tax structure that produces disproportionate burdens on local property taxes and sales taxes, and that most leaders acknowledge is in desperate need of a major overhaul.
In addition to a daunting budget shortfall, Texas is confronted with a growing need to re-visit a number of policies that have long been in need of revision. There has been resistance to changing these policies despite growing evidence that they are counter-productive or simply do not work. Included among these are school holding power (dropout counting and reporting), high-stakes testing linked to grade-level promotion (retention) and graduation, and inadequate access to higher education. These and other issues are outlined below.
School Holding Power
Since 1986, IDRA has developed annual estimates of school attrition – the number of students enrolled in ninth grade that are no longer enrolled during that group’s senior year. Those estimates are considered particularly crucial in the absence of state will to accurately determine and report the number of students who drop out of Texas public schools.
IDRA has long challenged the accuracy of state-reported dropout estimates, whether reporting annual dropout rates (the number of students who drop out of school during a single school year) or the more informative longitudinal dropout rate (the number of pupils from a particular group or cohort of pupils who fail to make it all the way to graduation).
IDRA believes that Texas and its citizens deserve accurate estimates of school holding power (the number of students that schools succeed in getting through all the way to high school graduation). Others, including some state legislators and school leaders, are content with creating complex accountability mechanisms that raise more questions than answers.
Rather than simply reporting graduates and those who fail to graduate, as the public no doubt expects, the state insists on maintaining a complicated leaver coding system that allows the state and local schools to explain away or simply not count dropouts. State and national groups, including the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), have rejected the Texas dropout counting procedure, insisting on calculating their own estimates.
Addressing the State Board of Education on the issue, IDRA recently again stressed the need to develop accurate and credible dropout numbers as a critical first step toward addressing this major state crisis. IDRA attrition research indicates that about four in 10 Texas ninth-grade pupils fail to graduate; with minority attrition levels approaching 50 percent.
A recent report produced by the NCES revealed that national estimates of Texas dropouts were three times the 1 percent rate reported by the Texas Education Agency. IDRA continues to insist the following.
- Texas must change state agency dropout counting and reporting procedures by eliminating the use of extensive leaver codes.
- The state must include non-verified transfers, General Education Development (GED) and other unverified leavers in state and local school dropout counts.
- Texas must incorporate longitudinal rates, in addition to dropout rates, in the state’s school accountability system.
Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing
IDRA has historically supported the use of student assessments to guide instruction. It has also advocated the use of state assessment measures as one factor in assessing school effectiveness and for holding schools accountable.
Unfortunately, despite a large body of research and even test-makers’ insistence that one test not be used as a sole criterion in making high-stakes decisions about students, Texas policy continues to base graduation on performance on the state’s mandated exit-level test.
More recently, high-stakes implications were expanded when the legislature adopted policies that will require students to pass the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in order to be promoted from third, fifth and eighth grades.
Despite a three-year effort to prepare third grade students for the first phase of the new retention policy, it was recently revealed that up to 64,000 Texas third grade students may be retained in-grade based on performance on the TAKS. These numbers promise to swell in future years when students in grades five and eight are included in the automatic retention policy.
Entrenched testing advocates have resisted past efforts to modify retention policies. Unfortunately, they have not insisted that we examine the quality of teaching provided to impacted pupils. IDRA recommends the following.
- The state should modify existing in-grade retention policy to consider multiple indicators such as student grades and teacher and parent opinions on promotion and retention.
- Local schools should be required to determine whether students considered for retention were taught by non-certified teachers, teachers teaching out of their area of certification, or teachers teaching on emergency permit, and this should be considered in making grade placement decisions.
- All pupils should be included in the assessment system and the number of exemptions should be included and considered in school accountability procedures.
Access to Higher Education
Recent research indicates that more students must be enrolled and graduate from Texas universities if future state workforce needs are to be addressed. After the Hopwood decision prohibiting affirmative action, some progress was made when Texas adopted the “10 percent plan” that grants automatic admission to any state college or university Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. The 10 percent plan has helped Texas colleges and universities expand the diversity of their student enrollment, including many students from high schools that have historically never sent students to some state institutions.
Noteworthy in this area is research that documents that the 10 percent pupils from historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged schools, when supported with careful academic advising and other specialized programs, perform at levels comparable to peers who on average scored higher on SAT exams (Dancer and Gilbert, 2001).
Though the numbers have improved, recent research has indicated that Texas is still falling short of the “Closing the Gap” targets created to increase enrollment among all students, including increasing college enrollment among the state’s Latino and African American high school graduates (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2000). It is also the case that recent research shows that percentage plans can help, but only in states with high proportions of minority students in segregated schools (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2003).
IDRA recommends that state policy be considered as follows.
- The state should increase the automatic admissions level from the top 10 percent to the top 15 percent.
- The state should continue and refine its support services programs to include all students identified as requiring additional academic, financial aid or other support programs.
Progressing from having one of the most unequal funding systems in the United States to a funding system now considered one of the most equitable, Texas has come a long way in the last decade. Though it was brought along kicking and screaming and prodded by court action, school districts in Texas over the last seven years have been provided much more equitable access to school funding.
This improvement was achieved by a combination of increasing funding to the state’s lowest property wealth schools, while at the same time neutralizing the tremendous differences in taxable wealth enjoyed by the state’s wealthiest districts. These limitations took the form of tax caps and having the state expand access to the property previously hoarded by a few school districts. Now all students in the state benefit through recapture.
Forced to support increased funding for all schools and to share their wealth and long-accustomed to out-spending all other schools Texas, wealthy school systems have led a determined effort to dilute the equalizing features of the Texas funding system. The fact that the state does not include some aspects of facilities funding taxation in its equalization formula provides one example of the success of that crusade.
Another group of wealthy schools has complained about the impact of tax caps that limit their option to increase spending above a particular level. Facing mounting pressure to ease the strain created by schools wishing to be released from equalization-related constraints, some members of the legislature have expressed an interest in modifying the funding system to provide high-wealth systems greater spending “flexibility.” IDRA recommends the following.
- The state must not adopt formula changes that will dilute the level of equity that is found in the current funding system either in the level of taxing that is equalized or the number of students and districts included within the equalized system.
- If the tax cap is increased, the state should maintain the same level of equalized return for every penny of tax effort provided in the current funding system.
- If recapture of local excess revenue is eliminated, local district ability to use excess taxing capacity should be effectively neutralized.
Using Public Tax Revenue for Public Education
IDRA believes that the best way to improve public schools is to invest in public education. Proponents of vouchers, tuition tax credits and non-public charter schools propose to improve education by diverting public resources to support private ventures. Private schools by design are selective and exclusive, not accountable to elected bodies, and allowed to operate without regard to rules and regulations applicable to public schools, including requirements related to special education and civil rights.
Contrary to the belief of a few, funneling public money to private schools will not fuel improvement of public education, but instead drain already limited resources and dilute broad community support for what has long been considered a valid civic function. IDRA continues to advocate the following.
- The state should limit the appropriation of public funding to private schools.
- The state should reject the concept of public funding for private schooling, even if the proposal is to implement pilot programs.
Access to Comprehensible Instruction
In the Lau vs. Nichols decision, the federal courts ruled that providing an all-English curriculum to children who were not fluent in the language denied those children access to equitable educational opportunity. In response to legal requirements and the recognition that appropriate education of language-minority children requires the use of their native language for instruction, Texas adopted a transitional bilingual education program for kindergarten and elementary grades and delivery of English as a second language (ESL) instruction for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students in Texas middle schools and high schools.
More than 20 years after its adoption, Texas continues to ensure that the language and cultural backgrounds of students are accepted and considered in the instructional program. IDRA recommends the following.
- The state should make no changes to existing bilingual education and ESL policies.
- To the extent possible, a separate allocation should be considered for non-LEP students participating in a school district’s optional dual language programs.
Other Policy Reforms
In other policy areas, IDRA recommends that the state continue to hold the line and either maintain existing policies, or in a few areas, reject the adoption of new polices considered to be detrimental to public education. Specific recommendations include the following.
- Texas should continue existing limits on the open enrollment charter schools.
- The state should limit referrals to disciplinary alternative education programs to students committing the most serious offenses as originally proposed in state law and require that disciplinary referrals for other less serious violations be housed in on-campus facilities.
Recently San Antonio and Texas as a whole were excited by the announcement that Toyota will be locating a major new auto plant in the area. No doubt one factor in the carmaker’s decisions transcended state tax policies and other incentives that were offered to encourage the selection. There is little doubt that the quality of the prospective workforce, the strength of San Antonio as a bilingual community and a developing educational infrastructure available to support the industry were also factors.
Texas can continue to lead the nation by wisely investing in enlightened educational reform policy or it can fall back to its earlier history of lagging behind the rest of the country in the quality of its public schools. The future of Texas demands that we do better.
Dancer, L.S., and L.A. Gilbert. The Longhorn Scholars Program: A Snapshot from 1999-2001 (Austin, Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, Connexus: Connections in Undergraduate Studies, 2001).
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Closing the Gaps – The Texas Higher Education Plan (Austin, Texas: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2000).
US Commission on Civil Rights. Beyond Percentage Plans: The Challenge of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2003).
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]