Kress: The facts on school accountability

Austin American Statesman

By Sandy Kress

Saturday, September. 29, 2012

Just the Facts, Ma’am!

John Young, a frequent Statesman columnist, takes to these pages often to criticize accountability in education.

Though I could, I won’t respond in kind with sarcastic attacks and rhetoric. Rather, I will simply use the facts to show that accountability has worked wonders in our state.

If facts bore you, go back to your coffee and the comics. My purpose here is to show that accountability works by detailing the amazing gains our youngsters have achieved academically since the onset of accountability.

Because many think state tests can “be taught to” or “gamed,” I won’t rely on them but instead will use results from scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a sampling that can suffer no such defect.

I will focus mostly on results for minority students, though white students’ scores have also risen nicely and are at all-time highs.
As I cite these facts, I will note when advances are so significant they amount to a grade level gain or more. This makes the data easier to understand. So, when you read this, think about what it would mean for your child or grandchild to be performing a full grade level or better than where he or she is currently in school.

Texas began its accountability system in late 1993, providing for high standards of learning for all students in the state, annual state assessments to measure progress, and consequences for success or failure. So, let’s see what’s happened to our students in Texas since 1992, the year before it all started.

In fourth-grade math, black students generally in 2011 are — stunningly — more than three grade levels ahead of where they were in 1992 (a gain from a score of 199 to 232). Fourth-grade Hispanic students are up an amazing 2½ grade levels in math (208 to 235). The gap between these white and minority 4th graders has narrowed by between half to a full grade level.

In eighth-grade math, blacks students are 3½ grade levels ahead of where they were in 1992 (243 to 277). Hispanic students are up by this same remarkable amount (249 to 283). This is truly historic, yet no one seems to know or appreciate it. The white-minority gap has narrowed by almost a grade level. Hispanic students today are just slightly below where whites were in 2000.

The bottom line of the eighth-grade data is that minority children generally are within range of being ready to study algebra in high school. We’ve never been even close to that goal in our state’s history.

In fourth-grade reading, blacks and Hispanics both are a grade level ahead of where they were in 1992 (199 to 210 and 200 to 210). Unlike math, NAEP assessed reading in the spring of the accountability system’s first full year, 1994. Student gains have been even greater since that assessment.

Data for eighth-grade students in reading only go back to 1998 and are flatter. But black and Hispanic scores are up about half a grade level, at all-time highs, and closer than ever to white scores.

Accountability works!

Where we have not made as much progress is with older students. We’ve improved graduation rates, but not by much, and our percentage of students graduating ready for college or career is still pitifully low. But that’s where House Bill 3 comes in. For the first time in our state’s history, the legislature has gotten serious about expecting more from our high schools. And, if we stay the course, we will achieve the same sort of gains for our older students that we’ve garnered for our younger ones.

Folks like John Young want to rip up these new reforms as well as the foundation upon which they were built. It appears that many others agree with him. All I ask is that this column be put in a time capsule. If accountability is shredded in this next legislative session, let’s look back years from now at educational progress data over the next 20 years and compare those results with these huge gains over the past 20 years.

Since the pressure to narrow achievement gaps for disadvantaged students would be seriously reduced, I predict that our progress will stagnate and the gaps will grow again. We will deeply regret that we were swayed by moaning from friends of the status quo and their nasty and unwarranted attacks on accountability.