Amid all this talk about financing schools, how are the schools actually performing?
Texas teachers are doing remarkable things given the limited resources they have. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, when adjustments are made for socioeconomic standing, Texas was first in the nation in fourth and eighth grade math. But the unadjusted scores show we still have a long way to go: Texas is 37th in fourth and eighth grade reading.
In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that, in perhaps the most important measure of all – graduation rates, or schools’ holding power – Texas is failing miserably: “Texas has a severe dropout problem: more than half of the Hispanic ninth-graders and approximately 46 percent of the African American ninth-graders leave the system before they reach the 12th grade.” These numbers are appalling and show that the system is more than strained.
Many who seek to defend the current funding levels will cite various statistics. But the dropout rate cannot be covered up by any other numbers. It is a persistent and pernicious problem that cannot be adequately addressed without a commitment to more adequately fund Texas’ struggling public schools.
What are the standards that Texas schools must meet and what does that have to do with funding?
The standards for all grade levels and all subjects are defined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, commonly referred to as TEKS.
A corresponding test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), is given to every student in the third through eighth and 10th grades. The test covers five subjects (reading, writing, math, science and social studies). Students must pass the test to proceed to the fourth and sixth grades. They must also pass an exit-level examination to graduate.
When the TAKS replaced the TAAS test in 2003, the State Board of Education purposefully left the “cut scores,” or passing scores, low since the TAKS was written to be considerably harder. For example, on the exit level exam, a high school student only needs to answer 25 out of 60 questions correctly (42 percent) on the math test to pass. Setting them low and then raising the cut score over time did two things: it allowed more students to get a passing score, and it kept many districts from getting a lower accountability rating.
In future years, though, the bar will be raised. Also, to be academically acceptable, a school will have to ensure that more of its students pass the tests than currently do now. The increased accountability measures will take effect at the same time the numbers of English language learners and economically disadvantaged students rise.
As the Supreme Court pointed out: “Because more students are failing the TAKS test than were failing the TAAS test, and because passing the TAKS test is now required for promotion to the fourth and sixth grades, the districts must spend more for remediation through summer school, remedial classes, curriculum specialists, reduced class-size and more math and science teachers. There also is a worsening undersupply of teachers, aggravated by high attrition and turnover.”
In other words, rising standards and increased accountability are great, but they aren’t cheap.
What does the Supreme Court ruling mean in light of the NCLB standards?
The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2001, requires states to meet higher performance standards on mandatory tests incrementally until 2014 when 100 percent of students in third through eighth grades must pass tests in English, math and science. Some have said it is an impossible goal while others insist it can be done, but few would disagree that increasing funding would help them try to meet those standards.
While the Supreme Court did not say it explicitly, it is fairly clear that the level of what is considered adequate to pass the constitutional test is rising. It is unclear if either state or federal funding will rise to keep pace.
What about the quality of education for students with special needs?
In the Texas school finance system, school districts receive additional funds for educating their special needs students (limited English proficiency, bilingual, gifted, special education, and impoverished students). The Supreme Court rightfully pointed out that these additional funds, called “weights,” have not increased since 1985 for children with limited English proficiency (LEP) or for children in poverty. If programs for these students are not appropriately funded, districts will be hard-pressed to provide the quality programs needed and students will be ill-served while being held to high standards of performance.
See other questions and answers about the ruling and related issues