• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2000 •
Education advocates around the United States have been told to look to Texas for evidence that education reform can indeed lead to improved student achievement. People are taking note of improved Texas academic achievement test scores, particularly gains reflected in the state’s student assessment system. National studies have noted that Texas students, both majority and minority, have performed at levels above those of similar students from comparable states.
The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has examined much of the data on which those claims are based and can concur that, indeed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) – the state testing measure – seems to reflect an overall improvement in student achievement. This upward trend has included all students and all grade levels.
Decades of Reforms Begin to Pay Off
Before proceeding to a detailed discussion of the improved test scores however, it is important to remember the major educational reforms in Texas over the last decade that caused much of this improvement. It is also important to note that no single reform can account for the improvements noted in Texas public schools. Rather, the progress came about as a result of the combined effects of a number of distinct education reforms.
Much of the broad improvement in Texas student performance is the result improvements made possible by increases in state funding for elementary and secondary public education. Dating back to the adoption of House Bill 72 in 1984, Texas has increased state funding by over $7.5 billion. This additional money has resulted in upgrades in the state’s basic educational program, providing additional opportunities for all school systems to improve their staff, materials, and other areas that impact the quality of instruction being provided to Texas students.
In a second reform area worth noting, Texas provided supplemental funding that was based on the numbers and types of “special needs” pupils being served in districts. In House Bill 72, the state created a system of funding “weights” that were calculated as an add-on based on funding provided to the regular foundation program. The actual amounts that were received by schools were based on the number of special needs pupils being served by special programs. Special needs students are those who are gifted and talented, are served in special education classes, are in low-income families, or are limited-English-proficient. These supplemental special student population funds in turn enabled school systems to focus additional resources to better serve these pupils.
While additional funding was one contributing factor for improved school performance, organizations such as IDRA, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the South Central Collaborative for Equity (the equity assistance center at IDRA that serves Texas and surrounding states) and others that supported equalization of public school funding, point to the act of ensuring that the monies provided were equitably distributed as another cornerstone of key Texas educational reforms. It took a series of state court rulings to move the state legislature to revise its public school funding schemes to enable all schools to have more comparable educational resources. The fact that lower-wealth schools were finally able to offer better quality educational programs – long taken for granted in the state’s more affluent suburbs – has contributed significantly to the overall improvement of student achievement throughout most of the state.
Credit for improved student performance can also be ascribed to the development of uniform state curriculum standards that reflected high expectations for all students. The creation of these state standards clarified what was expected from schools and students and served to create a uniform curriculum that facilitated cross-school and cross-district comparisons. The existence of a uniform curriculum led to the creation of a new state accountability system that enabled policy-makers and the public to measure individual district and state-level progress toward meeting those standards.
These curriculum standards also facilitated the development of state school performance standards that were integrated into the state’s school accountability system. Incorporating comprehensive reporting and accountability requirements that not only aggregate numbers of all pupils, but also include and give equal weight to the performance of subgroups of students (e.g., low-income, ethnic minorities) have contributed greatly to raising the levels of student performance across the state.
Ongoing state attention to stronger credentialing of school personnel (reflected in the creation of the new Educator Certification Board) and requiring ongoing updating of professional skills are also acknowledged as factors that may be contributing to improved student performance. Additionally, the state’s decision to limit and provide funding for reducing class sizes, particularly at the lower elementary school levels, and its commitment to providing pre-school opportunities to students most in need are also seen as crucial education reform initiatives begun over a decade ago, that are now paying dividends.
Though the state now prides itself on the national perception that it is a leader in education reform that produces impressive student outcomes, those close to the Texas education scene will attest to the fact that many of the reforms discussed above were forced on state leaders, some by court mandates (like funding equalization) and some through the intense efforts of advocates who strongly believed in the efficacy of their reforms (class size reduction and early childhood programs). Whatever the motivation or origin for the changes, many of the tumultuous reforms that occurred in Texas seem to be producing results – at least in some areas.
Overall TAAS Passing Rates
The data presented in the box below summarize statewide student performance on the TAAS for grades three through eight and grade 10 for the 1994 to 1999 school years. These data reflect the within grade level group gains achieved by Texas students in each of the grades tested. They allow for a comparison of improvement for each of the major subgroups of Texas pupils for whom data is gathered and reported.
The table summarizes AAS performance for Texas pupils over a five-year period. The data reflect the percentage of pupils passing the TAAS within each grade in which the TAAS was administered. For example, in 1994, 56 percent of third grade students taking the TAAS achieved a passing score on the exam. In 1996, 67 percent of those tested in third grade passed, and in 1999, 78 percent of third graders had passing scores. The bottom row of the table reflects the net gain or increase in the percentage of pupils passing the TAAS at each grade level. Thus for third graders, the number of TAAS passers increased from a low of 56 percent in 1994 to a high of 78 percent in 1999, or a 22-point gain for that grade level over the five-year period summarized on the table.
In examining the passing rates across the grade levels over the time span, we note that all grade levels reflect greater percentages of pupils passing the TAAS. Almost all grades started with passing percentages that were in the high forties and mid-fifties in 1994, and most achieved passing rates in the mid- to high-seventies by 1999, an average gain of 25 points across all grades. This notable increase in the percent of pupils passing within a grade level over time is part of what national researchers have noted about Texas student achievement gains.
The data reflect the fact that all groups, across all grade levels have shown an increasing percentage of pupils passing all sections of the test. Changes in the percentages of students passing all segments has increased most at the eighth-grade level, followed by similar increases at the sixth-, fifth-, and fourth-grade levels. The average improvements (labeled as “gain” on the table) for all students have ranged from a 22-point increase at grade three to a gain of 29 points at grade eight. These improvements are part of what is drawing so much attention to the Texas education scene.
While things have gotten better in the last few years, the same data document the fact that far too many of our pupils are not performing at grade level on these measures. For example, the third grade data for 1999 indicate that although 78 percent passed, 22 percent did not. In a similar vein, though 79 percent of sixth graders passed the TAAS in 1999, 21 percent failed, and though 75 percent of 10th graders passed, 25 percent failed the 10th grade exam. We can celebrate a 75 percent passing rate, but should remain very concerned that one in four students fails the exit-level test. Particular concern should be focused at the exit-level test since, at this grade level, failure on the test results in the denial of a high school diploma.
While the progress reflected in the increasing passing rates across all grade levels between 1994 and 1999 should be applauded, it is important to continue our efforts to ensure that all pupils have educational opportunities that enable all of them to pass the state’s criterion-referenced measure. Neither Texas educators nor the public should be satisfied until all pupils tested pass the state’s mandated exam for their grade level.
Concern with the numbers of pupils failing to achieve passing scores on the TAAS is heightened when we examine the disparate TAAS passing rates reflected among the state’s largest ethnic groups.
Ethnic Group TAAS Passing Rates
The box below summarizes the TAAS passing rates for major subgroups of Texas pupils including White, African American and Hispanic pupils and economically disadvantaged students. Laid out in a similar format as the first table, the data here show the percentage of pupils from within each subgroup who passed the TAAS in grades three through eight and grade 10. As was the case with the aggregated data discussed in the previous section, all subgroups, across all grade levels tested reflect improved performance on the TAAS.
The data also show that minority pupils – both Hispanic and African American – show a greater gain in the percentages of pupils passing the TAAS in each of the grades tested than their White pupil counterparts at each grade level. While White pupils in third grade reflect a TAAS passing rate that rose from 68 percent passing to 87 percent passing – a net gain of 19 points – the Hispanic pupil passing rate for the third grade level increased from 44 percent passing to 73 percent passing – a 29-point gain. Similarly, while only 36 percent of African American third graders passed the TAAS in 1994, the percent passing had increased to 59 percent by 1999 – a 23-point gain.
The data show that while White student gains were in the range of 19 to 24 percentage points, African American student gains ranged from 38 points at grade eight to 23 points at grade three, while Hispanic student gains ranged from 39 points in grade six to 21 points in grade three.
It is this more rapid increase in minority passing rates that has led to the statements that Texas appears to be “closing the achievement gap” between White and minority pupils attending Texas schools.
A closer look at the data shows that while there has been evident improvement and a degree of closing the performance gap between White, middle-class pupils and low-income, minority pupils, we are not at a stage where the relative performances for all the state subgroups are anywhere close to being equal. While there is reason to be hopeful, the ultimate goal of having all students achieve at high levels – regardless of race, income or ethnic background – is far from a reality in Texas. A close examination of the TAAS statewide summary data supports this conclusion.
The recently released 1999 TAAS summary data reflecting the latest round of state assessments show that, in 1999, while 87 percent of White pupils are passing the third grade TAAS, only 59 percent of African American pupils and 73 percent of Hispanic pupils are performing as well. The differential at the fourth grade level is similar: 85 percent of White pupils achieved passing scores, but only 62 percent of African American pupils and 73 percent of Hispanic pupils passed all sections. The same 20-point gap can be seen between White students and African American pupils throughout the grade levels tested in 1999. While the gap is somewhat smaller for Hispanic students, the differentials hover between the 12- and 22-point level at the various grades tested.
The gap is smaller than it was in 1994, but there remains very significant differences across the groups. No educator should be comfortable until the differences between the state’s major student subgroups are eliminated.
Tracking TAAS Performance of Groups of Pupils Over Time
Another reason for reservation is IDRA’s analysis of data on specific groups (or grade cohorts) as they progressed through the Texas school system from 1994 to 1999. The box below tracks the percentages of pupils passing the TAAS for groups of students that were in third grade in 1994 and calculates the gains in the percentages of those pupils passing all TAAS sub-tests in subsequent school years. Acknowledging that the actual composition of the individual students who make up this cohort may change slightly over time, it is safe to assume that the overall group scores (given the sample size) probably reflect the overall progress of the original population. With those assumptions stated, we can proceed to consider the relative changes reflected for the state’s major subgroups over time.
For minority and low-income student advocates, these analyses over a five-year span give even less cause to celebrate. According to this trend data, the percentage of White pupils passing all segments of the test increased from 68 percent in 1994 to 85 percent in 1999, a net increase of 17 percentage points. For the group of Hispanic pupils who were third graders in 1994, the percentage passing increased from 44 percent to 67 percent – a net gain of 24 percentage points. For this group of Hispanic pupils, there was only a 7-point reduction in the performance gap between White and Hispanic pupils over the five-year span summarized – a net gain of only 1.4 percentage points per year.
A similar analysis for students who were third graders in 1994 indicates that 77 percent of White pupils passed the TAAS while 87 percent passed the TAAS when this group was in the eighth grade four years later – resulting in a 10-point net gain. Hispanic pupils who were third graders in 1996 had passing rates of 54 percent and increased their passing rates to 67 percent when they reached the eighth grade – a net gain of 13 points (see table).
Comparing the White net gain of 10 points to the Hispanic students’ net gain of 13 points for these groups, it is evident that the gap reduction over time is also very small – a total of three points, or an average of approximately one half point per year.
A similar pattern emerges for the African American cohort of pupils. While third grade African American pupils passing all segments of the TAAS was at 36 percent in 1994, the percentage of those students passing all TAAS sub-tests increased to 63 percent by 1999 – a net increase of 27 percentage points over five years. This increase compared to a 17-point increase for White students over the same period. This greater proportional increase of TAAS passers means that the gap in TAAS performance between African American and White TAAS test takers did decrease for this group over time. What should be sobering for those committed to a complete closing of the performance gap, however is the fact that the gap was only decreased by a total of 10 points over that five-year period (percentages of the cohort passing went from 68 percent to 85 percent for White pupils – a 17 point difference as compared to a 36 percent to 63 percent passing rate for African American pupils – a 27 point difference) an average “gap reduction” rate of two points per year.
Assuming that all subgroups continue to improve at rates similar to those experienced to date with White pupils gaining an average of 3.4 points, Hispanic pupils gaining an average of 4.6 points, and African American pupils gaining an average of 5.4 points per year, it will take many years before all groups achieved parity. In fact, if White pupils continued to improve their passing percentages at similar rates, 100 percent of those pupils would pass all segments of TAAS within five years (85 percent passing rates in 1999, plus a 3.4 point gain times five years = 102). Assuming a similar annual level of improvement for Hispanic students, it would take seven years (67 + 4.6 point gain times 7 years = 99.2) for 100 percent of that same Hispanic cohort to pass all sections of the TAAS.
The problem is that this Hispanic cohort does not have eight years left in the Texas school system. If they are now eighth graders, they have only four more years to achieve parity. The percentages passing must be accelerated by three times the current rates to produce results comparable to their White student counterparts by graduation, a scenario considered highly unlikely.
For African American pupils a similar pattern is noted. It would take that group of African American pupils seven more years to achieve a 100 percent passing rate. As is the case with Hispanic students, these African American pupils do not have that much time left before graduation. Their improvement rate would have to double within the four years left for them to pass at rates comparable to their White classmates. A similar pattern can be noted for economically disadvantaged pupils.
These observations along with our familiarity with the state’s tendency to try to re-define away, rather than resolve achievement gap disparities (as is the case with dropout calculating and reporting) are the basis for IDRA’s reserved response to the so-called “Texas miracle” discussions that have been initiated in national circles. IDRA has concluded that there is far to go and much more to do than what has been done to achieve true parity in achievement for all pupils. Looking at TAAS scores within single years is one good way of assessing whether we are making progress within grade levels, and it informs us about the extent to which we are narrowing achievement differentials within specific grades in this state. We, like others, celebrate the progress that has been made toward educational reform. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, IDRA is one of the few to point out that while things have improved, we still have far, far to go.
This reserve is further reinforced when we analyze within-grade-historical-data for grade 10 – the grade level where failure to pass the TAAS results in students being denied a Texas high school diploma. According to state summary reports, the percentage of White 10th graders passing all segments of TAAS increased from 64 percent in 1994 to 86 percent in 1999 – a net increase of 22 points. Hispanic pupils went from 34 percent passing all segments in 1994 to 64 percent passing all segments in 1999 – a net gain of 30 points within the 10th grade. Similarly for African American pupils, the percent passing increased from 28 percent passing to 60 percent – a net improvement of 32 points.
Despite the notable improvement observed, the gap among the percentages of 10th grade pupils passing all sections of the TAAS remained huge in 1999. White students passed at rate of 86 percent, while Hispanic students passed at a 64 percent pace, and African American pupils passed at a rate of only 60 percent. This inter-ethnic group passing rate disparity in the 10th grade in 1994 was 30 points between White students and Hispanic students and 36 points between White students and African American pupils. By 1999, the 10th grade inter-group gap was reduced to 22 points between White students and Hispanic pupils and 26 points between White students and African American pupils. Given that passing all sections of the TAAS is a prerequisite to receiving a diploma in Texas, this difference easily converts to an estimate of the significant difference in the graduation rates observed for Texas’ major ethnic groups, a disparity long noted by IDRA.
One area of additional concern is the fact that the passing rate disparities that are narrowing at the elementary grades, do not show the same rate of reduction at the high school level. This is despite the fact that many low-performing pupils from all three groups (but particularly from the state’s Hispanic population) have already dropped out by the 10th grade, leaving the group of “survivors” to take the 10th grade exit TAAS.
The fact that the performance gap has remained relatively constant at the high school level suggests that secondary schools have much more to do before we can assume that the differential TAAS passing rates for the state’s major ethnic groups is being effectively addressed. Since there is no inherent inequality in academic potential among different subgroups of Texas school children, we must continue to seek opportunities and programs that lead to high achievement for all pupils. There is no reason minority and low-income students should have lower levels of academic achievement.
Clearly, some Texas pupils at each of the grade levels tested are passing. This is reason for applause. But, passing the TAAS is merely a minimum level of achievement. It is not the same as mastering school subjects. We at IDRA look forward to the days when all children regardless of race, language background or economic circumstance are achieving t high levels. Until we get there, it is too early to host victory parades and relax
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2000 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.]