Early in August we were treated to news from the Texas Education Agency that Texas high school graduation rates have reached an all-time high of 86%. Regardless of the qualifications one might add to this number, this represents the continuation of an increasing trend in graduation rates over the past 20 years of standards and accountability based reform in Texas public education, and we should applaud educators across the state for this achievement. And incidentally, these results confirm the fact that accountability doesn’t drive an increasing dropout rate, as is suggested by some who oppose high stakes accountability.
However, while we should welcome this news, let’s take a closer look at the rest of the story, as highlighted by the recent release of the Condition of College and Career Readiness Report, based on scores on the ACT exam popularly used for college admissions. Of the 39% of 2012 Texas graduating seniors who took the ACT, only 24% met all four benchmarks for postsecondary readiness in English, mathematics, reading, and science, a result that is below the national average of 25% and that has been relatively flat for a number of years. And in fact, 32% of Texas graduates didn’t meet any of the benchmarks!
There is even more to the story: 51% of Texas students entering community colleges need remediation and, more significantly, based on a recent study sponsored by Houston Endowment, only 20% of Texas students are earning any sort of postsecondary credential within six years of expected high school graduation. The latter statistic represents the “pipeline” of those ready for college and the 21st century workplace and is a more realistic measure of educational success and the challenge we face than any “dropout” calculation or graduation rate might indicate.
Over the past year, we have been besieged by a firestorm of protest from the education community about the “oppression” of the high stakes standardized testing of students under the Texas accountability system, including resolutions adopted by approximately 500 school district boards of trustees calling for rollbacks in assessments and accountability. These complaints have been coupled with the usual demands for more funding, to the ludicrous suggestion that “we can only justify as much accountability as the funding will allow”.
Well, it seems that the ACT report card and the other data represent a validation of educator performance independent of the dreaded and vilified TAKS and STAAR assessments, including the significant disconnect with the graduation statistics. Should we continue to put more money into this system? Consider this: according to Education Resource Group and data from the Texas Education Agency, aggregate public education funding from all sources over the past 14 years has increased by $70 billion more than the increase necessary to fully fund the growth in enrollment and inflation combined over this period, even when adding a factor for the increase in special needs students. It’s pretty clear to me that a continuation of this growth in funding is not sustainable and certainly not justified by the productivity of the system.
Our organization, the Texas Institute for Education Reform (www.texaseducationreform.org), has identified the primary challenge to Texas public education by 2020 to produce 80% postsecondary ready high school graduates without the need for remediation—a very tall order. How do we do this? With a serious commitment to the following fundamentals: (1) demand and defend accountability, (2) innovate and deregulate the delivery system, (3) enhance choice and competition, and (4) emphasize efficiency and productivity in funding. All four of these areas of reform must “hang together” as an interdependent and comprehensive whole, but it begins with the completion of the implementation of the new state system of accountability, for without the infrastructure provided by this system the other pieces have no coherence.