The results of minimum competency testing in Texas have been more than disappointing. More than a year ago, in the Spring 1993 administration of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, only 46.3% of all Texas students met the state minimum performance standards. The disaggregation of these data presents an even more dismal picture. Only 24.8% of African American students, 29.8% of Hispanic students and 28.2% of economically disadvantaged students met the minimum requirements measured by the TAAS.
At that time, the Rio Grande City school district’s performance in the spring 1993 administration of the TAAS was consistent with state findings. Less than 20% (19.5%) of the students met the minimum standards. Since almost all of the district’s students are Hispanic, the percentage of Hispanics passing the TAAS (19.3%) was almost identical to the percentage passing for all students.
Rio Grande City is located in Starr County on the Mexican border. Its school district is not small by Texas standards, with 7,516 students enrolled. It has a four-year high school, three middle schools, four elementary schools and an early childhood center. The student population has two salient characteristics: over 99% of the student body is Mexican American with limited English language proficiency, and most of the students come from economically disadvantaged homes (85%).
Superintendent Ruben Sáenz was just as disappointed in the student performance as any other Texas educator. However, rather than rationalizing the poor performance on the great number of students in the district who are deemed most difficult to teach, i.e. minorities, limited-English-proficient, and economically disadvantaged, he initiated a program of instructional activities to adapt to the characteristics of the district’s students. Since so many of the students were limited-English-proficient, he focused on the improvement of the district’s Bilingual Education Program. The extensive number and proportion of economically disadvantaged students demanded extensive enrichment experiences for these students.
Superintendent Sáenz mobilized the school district and called upon school district personnel as well as external agencies to join in the effort. Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) was called upon to provide district-wide assistance for all eleven campuses, including early childhood, elementary, middle school and high school.
IDRA assistance at the high school level focused on the teaching of reading at the tenth grade level. With help from the central office and the campus administration, IDRA consultants formed a task force which developed a strategy with four major components for reading improvement:
- Component One – Training of both new and experienced staff in new ways of teaching reading at the tenth grade level.
- Component Two – Development and implementation of an extensive monitoring and evaluation procedure for determining the implementation of the innovative program and changes in student performance.
- Component Three – Continued focus on the role of the task force in the development and implementation of strategies and the involvement of teachers from other disciplines in the program.
- Component Four – Development of a resource guide to be used by Rio Grande City school staff in the enhancement of reading skills. – Training of both new and experienced staff in new ways of teaching reading at the tenth grade level. – Development and implementation of an extensive monitoring and evaluation procedure for determining the implementation of the innovative program and changes in student performance. – Continued focus on the role of the task force in the development and implementation of strategies and the involvement of teachers from other disciplines in the program. – Development of a resource guide to be used by Rio Grande City school staff in the enhancement of reading skills.
High school principal Roel Smith, his faculty and students made an extraordinary commitment to their “Ingredients for Success” effort. The six ingredients pursued during the school year consisted of the following:
- Project TAAS Workshops: Identification of students in need of assistance, a concerted effort by their teachers and the use of field and practice tests.
- Reading is Success (RIS) Strategies: Ways to acquire meaning from text and develop a love for reading.
- Project Pathways: Lessons and techniques developed for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) by IDRA and implemented by a consortium of professional organizations.
- Schedule Reorganization: The use of an eight period framework with a 2-hour English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) block and built-in math tutorials.
- Other efforts: Prescriptive writing, time on task organization, TAAS test awareness, and special incentives for students.
- The Four Cs: A strong effort characterized by cooperation, collaboration, commitment and credibility.
This intensive effort for the improvement of instruction and learning at the tenth grade level paid huge dividends as evidenced by TAAS performance. Figure 1 shows the number of students meeting TAAS standards jumped from 31% of the tenth graders in Spring 1993 to 60% in Spring 1994.
The improvement in reading performance was matched by similar dramatic improvements in other areas of the TAAS; Mathematics increased from 21% to 54%; Writing from 41% to 68%.
The percentage of students meeting the minimum requirements in all subtests of the TAAS increased threefold, from 13% of the tenth graders to 42%.
TAAS performance in Figure 2 showed a similar increase for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students as a result of the pilot program. In the one-year period, the percentage passing Reading increased from 12% to 35%; Mathematics from 6% to 33%; Writing from 17% to 40%. The percentage of LEP tenth grade students passing all three of the tests increased from 2% in 1993 to 19% in 1994.
The performance of Rio Grande City students compares favorably with state data for similar populations in the Spring 1994 administration of the TAAS. Figure 3 compares the performance of Rio Grande City tenth graders with the performance of all Hispanic tenth graders in the state; Rio Grande City tenth graders with all economically disadvantaged in the state; and Rio Grande City LEP tenth graders with all LEP tenth graders in the state.
Although the percentage of the students still not performing satisfactorily on the TAAS indicates that there is still much to be accomplished, a concerted effort characterized by enthusiasm and innovation can produce a proportionate improvement in school performance.
Equally important is the finding that affirms that all students can learn through appropriate instruction. The students of Rio Grande City schools, who are predominantly Mexican American, limited-English proficient and economically disadvantaged have succeeded because of administrative leadership, school effort and the belief that they can – and will – learn.
María Robledo Montecel is executive director of IDRA. Mercedes G. Ramos is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Training and Technical Assistance. José A. Cárdenas is the founder and director emeritus of IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1994, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1994 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.]