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Education 'Miracle' Has a Math Problem

Suggestion: Now that the Houston miracle has been exposed repeatedly as a fraud, write the Washington Post, asking why its stepchild NCLB continues to be inflicted on the nation's children. Tell the Post what this fraud is doing to your children.


HOUSTON -- When the state of Texas bestowed "exemplary" status on Austin High School in August 2002, ecstatic administrators compared the honor to winning the Super Bowl. There was more cheering and pompom-waving a few weeks later when a private foundation honored Houston for having the nation's best urban school district.

Just a year later, the high school has been downgraded to "low-performing," the lowest possible rating. And the Houston Independent School District -- showcase of the "Texas educational miracle" that President Bush has touted as a model for the rest of the nation -- is fending off accusations that it inflated its achievements through fuzzy math.

Austin is one of more than a dozen Houston high schools caught up in a burgeoning scandal about the reliability of their dropout statistics. During a decade in which, routinely, as many as half of Austin students failed to graduate, the school's reported dropout rate fell from 14.4 percent to 0.3 percent. Even a Houston school board member calls the statistic "baloney."

If this were any other school district in the nation, few people would pay much attention. But Houston is the political springboard for U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige. He was school superintendent here before moving to Washington, and what originally began as an argument over dropout data has expanded into a debate about the administration's entire approach to educational reform.

Opponents of the Houston system of business-style accountability have seized on the dropout scandal as evidence that some of Paige's most cherished accomplishments -- including narrowing the "achievement gap" between white and minority students -- rest on false or manipulated data. They have raised questions about the validity of test results that purport to show spectacular progress by Houston students in reading, writing and arithmetic.

"It is all phony; it's just like Enron," said Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Houston's Rice University, referring to the bankrupt Houston-based energy services company that boosted its stock price by covering up losses. "Enron was concerned about appearances, not real economic results. That pretty much describes what we have been doing to our children in Houston."

Paige, in an interview, called such remarks "inflammatory, very unfair." He vigorously defended his record as Houston school superintendent between 1994 and 2000, saying the criticism came from people who believe it is "fundamentally wrong" to measure student achievement and who have a "vested interest" in preserving a dysfunctional status quo.

During his tenure, Paige formed a political alliance with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who became an ardent advocate of accountability and high-stakes testing. After Bush was elected president, Paige's ideas became the inspiration for the administration's "No Child Left Behind" plan, aimed at raising educational standards nationwide. Schools now face penalties for failing to show improvement in such things as dropout rates and reading scores.

Conceding that individual "indiscretions" may have occurred in a school system that serves more than 200,000 students, Paige described the Houston Independent School District as "the most evaluated school district in the history of America." He said he places great stock in the credibility of an accountability system that demands quantifiable results from administrators, teachers and children.

"The whole system for me rode on integrity," Paige said.

The Houston accountability controversy reflects a rift that cuts to the heart of the debate about the future of American education. Paige and other proponents of high-stakes testing say it is scandalous that many American children lack basic academic skills, and they contend this can be remedied by an emphasis on bottom-line results. Skeptics say Paige's reforms are causing a dumbing-down of the curriculum and douse any spark of creativity in the classroom in a flood of dubious data.

Management Techniques

Springtime is testing season for the 200,000 or so students who attend Houston public schools, and it is approached with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for sporting events. There are pep rallies and marching bands, and results are blared from billboards and bumper stickers. The tests determine whether students advance to the next grade, whether teachers are promoted and whether administrators earn annual bonuses.

Although the system of high-stakes testing predated his appointment as school superintendent, Paige quickly became a symbol of the accountability movement. A former college education dean, Paige joined forces with local business leaders who favored a results-oriented approach to education that included rewards for success and penalties for failure. Soon after he became superintendent, he introduced a system of one-year contracts for school administrators, effectively tying their job security to the accomplishment of measurable goals.

In revamping the school district, Paige said, he spent a lot of time studying the works of management gurus at the Houston-based American Productivity and Quality Center, which provides training courses for executives of Fortune 500 companies.

By applying modern management techniques to the school system, Paige said he could explode "the conventional wisdom that big school districts could not work . . . that they were crime-ridden, underperforming and overexpensive."

The low point for Houston schools came in 1996, when voters turned down a proposed $390 million education bond issue. Two years later, with the help of the business community and public goodwill generated by steadily improving test scores, Paige secured voter approval for $678 million in new loans to rebuild many of the district's decrepit schools.

Even Paige's critics credit him with helping to reverse the traditional Republican disdain for public education. "He and George Bush made it acceptable in conservative circles to talk positively about public education," said Scott Hochberg, a Democratic state representative from Houston who is critical of many aspects of the accountability system.

At Paige's confirmation hearing in January 2001, senators from both parties hailed him for rescuing a troubled urban school system. Last year, Houston became the first winner of the $1 million Broad Foundation prize for the best urban school district.

But there were always dissenters, locally and nationally, who argued that the Houston miracle rested on skewed statistics and artful public relations. They claimed vindication earlier this year, when local television station KHOU uncovered a dropout-reporting scandal at Sharpstown High School.

Under pressure to produce results, Sharpstown administrators had changed the withdrawal codes for at least 30 students to make it appear that no one had dropped out in the 2001-2002 school year.

The television station tracked down one such student, Juana Juarez, behind the counter of a local Wendy's. Juarez had informed Sharpstown officials that she was leaving school to find work, but they changed her record to show she had transferred to a private school. Exactly who changed the dropout codes at Sharpstown High School remains a mystery.

An investigation by state auditors showed that at least 14 other Houston high schools, including Austin, reported unusually low dropout rates in 2000-2001, although there is no evidence administrators falsified data. By reporting a dropout rate of less than 0.5 percent, school principals increase their chances of winning bonuses of as much as $10,000 and earning top accountability ratings for their campuses.

After years of relying on dropout statistics as a key component in their annual accountability studies, school officials concede that they were worthless all along. "The annual dropout rate was a crock, and we're not [using] it anymore," said Robert R. Stockwell Jr., the district's chief academic officer.

Katie Haycock, director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group that supports strict accountability standards, said dropout statistics are notoriously unreliable, in Houston and across the United States.

"We have been lying to the public for a very long time about how many kids leave high school by using a dropout-reporting system that is crazy," she said.

Officials from the Houston school district provided The Washington Post with a different set of data, based on graduation rates, which show that Houston's dropout rate fell from 19.2 percent in 1998 to 9.2 percent last year. But even those numbers paint a more positive picture than official enrollment statistics. Typically, about 13,500 students make it to the eighth grade in Houston, but fewer than 8,000 earn high school diplomas.

Paige said Houston filed its dropout data according to Texas state regulations, and he expressed confidence in the integrity of the statistics collected while he was school superintendent. He said he is unable to comment on developments in Houston after he accepted the post of education secretary in December 2000.

Rising Numbers at Austin

Austin High, one of Houston's oldest public schools, offers a window into Paige's tenure as school superintendent, and the achievements and failings of the accountability movement. It serves a poor, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood within sight of glistening downtown skyscrapers. Nine of 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Since the early 1980s, the school's enrollment area had experienced an influx of Mexican immigrants and the flight of white residents to the suburbs. Built to accommodate 2,000 students, the school was desperately overcrowded. In 1989, students staged a walkout to protest conditions.
By many accounts, the atmosphere at the school improved significantly during the 1990s. A new principal, Jose Trevino, tightened discipline by introducing school uniforms and expelling troublemakers. Enron became a corporate sponsor. Two new schools opened in the neighborhood with funds generated by the school bond issue, relieving overcrowding at Austin.

Academic accomplishment also shot up, at least according to annual test results. In 1995, at the end of the first year of Paige's tenure as superintendent, only 26 percent of Austin's 10th-grade students passed the Texas math test. By 2000-2001, the year Paige retired, 99 percent of 10th-graders were passing.

In the wake of the dropout scandal, some local residents are questioning whether those results are as unreliable as the dropout statistics.

They note that the Texas test is administered in the sophomore year. Austin High, like many other Houston schools, routinely holds students back in the ninth grade under a policy that effectively allows school administrators to exclude weaker students from the 10th-grade test results. In 2001, for example, there were 1,160 students in the ninth grade and 281 in the 10th grade.

Perla Arredondo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, took ninth grade three times before being moved up to 11th grade. By then, she was so discouraged she dropped out of Austin High, along with many of her friends. She regrets her decision, after discovering she needs a high school diploma even for jobs such as secretary or cashier.

"I felt school was a waste of time because I had to go over the same thing over and over again and wasn't moving up," she said.

Because Arredondo skipped 10th grade, she was never included in Austin High's accountability statistics. According to Robert Kimball, a former Sharpstown High assistant principal who provided KHOU with much of its information, that is common practice in Houston. "The secret of doing well in the 10th-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the 10th grade," he said.

While declining to discuss individual cases, school district officials defend the policy of holding back students who are not ready to advance because they do not speak English well enough or cannot meet minimum academic standards. The alternative, said district spokesman Terry Abbott, is the discredited system of "social promotion" that pushes students "through a pipeline until they fall out the other end."

"This is not a Houston phenomenon, it is a national phenomenon," Paige said of the sharp spike in ninth-grade enrollment figures, and the equally sharp drop-off in subsequent grades. "If you look at the data, every school system has a spike like that."

But an analysis of ninth-grade enrollment data suggests that the spike is more pronounced in Houston than elsewhere. In the 2001-2002 school year, the size of the ninth-grade class in Texas was 1.6 times the size of the 12th-grade class. In Houston, there were 21/2 times as many ninth-graders as 12th-graders.

— Michael Dobbs
Washington Post
Education \'Miracle\' Has a Math Problem




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