Texas Schools Demand More Money to Graduate Dumber Kids

Close enough for government work, kid.
Close enough for government work, kid.
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Tell me that again. Texas school districts, you say, are in state court in Austin telling a judge they need more money because of “the Legislature's increased demands for standardized testing and curriculum requirements to graduate high school.”

Wait. I’m a libtard. I always want the schools to get more money, especially if it comes from rich people, not me. But I could swear that Texas school districts have been beating up on the Legislature — quite successfully and for some years — to get the graduation standards lowered.

No? Did I just dream that Governor Greg Abbott signed a new law four months ago saying kids in Texas can now flunk two of their senior end-of-course exams — not get low grades but flat flunk them — and still graduate from high school? When I was a kid, that was a scene in the Disney movie, Pinocchio. You also got to smoke cigars and drink beer, but then you turned into a donkey.

I must be so confused. As I say, I want schools to have more money, because … I just do. I like schools. But the schools say they need more money because standards have gone up? The teachers unions nationally started three years ago throwing in with the test-haters and the Tea Party — the Tea Party! — to sabotage the national education accountability policy called “No Child Left Behind,” and it always seemed to me they achieved their greatest successes here in Texas.

Between the teacher groups, the school administrators, the suburban test-hating mommies and the Tea Party, I thought we had replaced “No Child” here in Texas with “Don’t Worry, We’ve Got Extras.”

I called Sandy Kress, who was our school board president here in Dallas in the late 1990s, went on to become a principle architect of “No Child Left Behind” under George W. Bush, is now a partner in the law firm of Akin, Gump and a senior adviser to the George W. Bush Institute. I have disagreed with him on a lot of important issues over the years, so I trust his judgment.

Kress worked for a while for one of the big national test-making companies, so his detractors always paint him as a test salesmen. But I follow his stuff, and I notice him more often as a critic of excessive testing, even of some of test-prep kits published by his former client, Pearson Assessment. Kress has said often and loudly that too many school districts tried to meet the challenge of higher standards by teaching kids how to take tests instead of teaching them the underlying subject matters.

But when he and I spoke the other day, he seemed willing to concede some hubris in the early No-Child movement. He told me he thought No-Child advocates including himself may have contributed to the anti-test revolution by advocating “policies that were really way too far out there and may not make sense in certain ways.”

But what about now? The school districts are down in Austin telling a judge they’re getting squeezed by all these tougher graduation requirements, so they need a lot more money. I thought the requirements had been reduced, kind of, sort of, a little bit. Wrong?

Kress told me I was wrong but only by underestimation. I didn’t get how vastly and disastrously the standards have been reduced. Kress said the accountability movement in Texas in the mid-'90s accomplished reforms and put standards and testing in place to guarantee that a Texas high school diploma “at least meant something, readiness to go to a community college, something.

“I’ve done an inventory of seven or eight of the most significant ways in which the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency essentially not only have cut all that all out, I mean just obliterated it, but actually went back into policies that go back into the '70s and '80s and cut back more.”

Before the anti-accountability movement blew up in Austin, he said, Texas high school students had to achieve at last a passing grade, even if a low passing grade, on a comprehensive test quantifying their mastery of the full curriculum. No more. Now students only have to pass tests in 60 percent of the overall curriculum. In fact they can choose programs in which they no longer even have to take chemistry, physics or algebra II.

Kress said under the current standards for high school graduation, “You’re dealing with only freshman level content in reading, math or American history.”

So, wait a minute. If it’s that bad — if we have really dumbed things down that much, if we are producing high school graduates who are truly seventh-graders — shouldn’t the effects of that be showing up somewhere in the real world? Shouldn’t we be seeing dumber kids?

Almost wish I hadn’t asked. Kress, of course, would never use the term “dumber kids.” He sees them as less well prepared. OK. But you get what I mean: kids who can’t read, kids who can’t do math when they graduate from high school.

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Kress pointed me to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. The NAEP is a nationally normed test with a long track record, designed to measure the educational attainment of students all over the country. Their website is a place I wish I had never visited because it makes me want to weep. Feel free to go there yourself. Google “nation’s report card” and look for “data tools.”

Between 1992 and 2009 when the No Child Left Behind idea was still strong in Texas, black fourth-graders jumped ahead 30 points on the NAEP. Some experts equate 10 points on the NAEP with an entire grade level, so that would mean black fourth-graders in Texas pulled ahead three entire grade-levels in that 17-year period.

Now let’s go to 2009 and the birth of the anti-test, anti-rigor, anti-accountability movement and the beginning of the big tear-down of educational standards and rigor here in Texas and nationally. Right there, in 2009, you see the fourth-grade black kids stop. Their scores go flat. By 2013 they are headed back downhill.

Hispanic Texas fourth-graders barely make it up another inch between 2009 and 2011 and then go flat. White fourth-graders, who had soared between 1999 and 2004, back on the flats by 2009.

Texas 8th graders continued to move up in NAEP scores until 2011 until something happened — they found out they didn’t have to pass half this stuff to graduate? — and all of them, black, Hispanic and white took a nosedive back down a third to a half of a grade-level.

Texas is not the Lone Ranger here. The national numbers show similar though more modest declines. But Texas was leading the nation in educational progress for minority students at one point in the 1990s. Now look at the numbers for fourth- and eighth-graders and consider the kind of lagging indicator they portend: What happens when these younger kids, who are already learning a little less than their age-groups of a few years ago, come up against the new more lax standards for graduation?

It’s obvious. They graduate.

Kress said he didn’t want me to use any of this to portray him as a person opposed to more money for schools. “I don’t want to be interpreted by anybody as thinking we shouldn’t put more money into education or that there may be inequities that need to be corrected.”

But he did want to answer my first question clearly. What about the claim that schools need more money because the Legislature has imposed tougher standards on them?

“When they go in there and say the cost of education has gone up because we have college readiness policies that are very demanding and expensive to fulfill, they are lying," he said. "They are hypocritical. They got rid of all those so that now the expectation on the ground, the bar that students are expected to jump, is not only lower than when the college readiness movement started, it’s probably lower than when the court heard its first school finance case [in 1984].”

That’s devastating. In fact it forced me to revisit my philosophy of more money for schools no matter what. I don’t really believe that, of course. And I’m thinking more locally, about Dallas and the anti-reform movement here, joined in by most of local black elected leadership, the teachers associations and a good share of local media, united in their determination to run off former Superintendent Mike Miles, whom they considered too mean. And here is my dilemma.

If you figure that the anti-reform movement is now in the driver’s seat and will continue to seek lower standards and, of course, more money, and if you don’t believe in that, where do you go? What are the alternatives?

One is to give up on public education. We say, “OK, there is some kind of political metastasis going on here that we can’t beat, so we’re just going to take the old horse out back and shoot her and do something else.”

But what if the problem is not the structure? What if it’s the culture underlying the structure? What if the structure is only bad because it serves a culture of slack?

That takes me back to something Dallas school board member Mike Morath said to me once: “If we give up on public education, we give up on America.” That means we must simply refuse to accept the culture of slack, in other words, and insist instead on making the structure work. Just gets harder, doesn’t it?  

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