I have just been sent a copy of a brief white paper written by the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the UTeach Institute for the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium that presents the results of Texas 8th grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, the “nation’s report card”) by income level for the period 2000-2015. It also compares the results for Texas with those of Massachusetts, the national leader, California, which is catching up, and Washington, DC, traditionally the worst, but significantly improved. The most significant takeaway is the significant decline in Texas math scores since 2011, when Texas scores peaked, and it points to some obvious conclusions.
At the beginning of the period under review, the Texas results were middling, but showed improvements every year until 2011, when it had the nation’s highest score for low-income students, defined as those eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, just above Massachusetts in the rankings. These results can also be broken down by race and ethnicity and the results produce substantially the same ranking–Texas had the highest 8th grade math scores for Black and Hispanic students in 2011. For well off students not eligible for free or reduced lunch, Massachusetts placed first and Texas second and these two states were then considered the nation’s education leaders.
This progress ended in 2011 and the Texas math scores dropped precipitously in 2013 and 2015 for both low-income and well off students. (And I might add that the NAEP results for reading over the same period reflected a flat to declining trend.) Why did this happen? The paper makes the point that state public education funding was cut by $5 billion over the 2011-12 biennium and that bilingual and special education programs suffered as a result, thereby contributing to the decline in achievement. I differ on this point as to the weight of its contributing impact, because this one-time decrease in state funding for public education doesn’t alter the fact that for the past 20 years in Texas, total annual public education funding from all sources–local, state, and federal–has increased by almost twice the sum of inflation and enrollment growth over that period, even after an adjustment for the growth in special education students.
To be fair, the report does assign significant blame where it belongs–the widespread assault on standardized assessments and the Texas accountability system that had been rated as the best in the nation by credible organizations. This system, which for the first time would have, when fully implemented, established a Texas high school diploma as evidence of post-secondary readiness without the need for remediation, was essentially gutted over the following two legislative sessions, so that by 2013 the Texas high school graduation standard was effectively reduced to freshman algebra and sophomore English and language arts!
Texas has committed to a goal called “60X30”, which is to have 60% of 25 to 34-year old Texans possess an associates degree, bachelors degree, or industry certification by 2030. Currently that percentage is about 41% and to reach the goal will require a huge improvement in the post-secondary readiness of high school graduates. And there isn’t a prayer for accomplishing this objective without a serious upgrade in PreK-12 standards, expectations, and accountability for results.
Granted, the significantly enhanced rigor of the Texas system put in place with House Bill 3 in 2009 was a difficult climb for both students and educators because for the first time the system demanded “readiness”, not simply”passing”, a major transformational leap. But these misguided policy decisions to roll back the progress that had been made, particularly in the level of expectations that were demanded, undermined a 25-year consensus on standards and accountability-based reform that will be difficult to repair.
But repair it we must, and we’re about to roll out a new district and school grading system, based on the traditional A-F grading scale, and the federal Department of Education has approved Texas’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act that, among other benefits, has the potential to greatly increase the amount of federal funding for charter school startups and restructuring. So the new pieces are coming into place, but we all know that “what gets measured is what gets done”, that accountability without consequences is no accountability, and the battle over the role of accountability and assessments will continue. I think I’ve seen this movie before.