Points worth noting: Texas gets an A for Lege openness; teenage brain cells are golden

Posted Friday, Mar. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas

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Basking in sunshine

And you thought Texas ranked near the bottom nationally in just about every important category.

Cynics.

The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group dedicated to making government open and public information easily accessible, has given Texas an "A" for transparency.

No, your glasses aren't smeared.

The foundation only gave nine A's among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The other high scorers are Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Washington state.

Given that Texas leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, seem to believe that letter grades are great indicators of quality, at least in public education, it's helpful that the organization used an A-to-F scale.

Doesn't seem like they were grading on a bell curve, but that's sort of how it turned out, with "C" the most frequent grade on the Legislative Data Report Card. (bit.ly/YaEyHc)

The idea was to evaluate states on six measures of information available on the work of their legislatures. The high grade in a category was 2, the lowest -2.

Here's what Texas scored in each category:

Completeness of data about bills, committees, lawmakers, votes and events: -1, because roll call votes have to be extracted from daily journals instead of being published in easy-to-find fashion.

Timeliness with which online updates are made about legislative action: 1, because of multiple updates throughout the day.

Ease of access to legislative data: 1, because the Legislature's website is above average in ease of navigation.

Machine readability, as in whether information is posted in formats that are quick or slow to navigate: 2, because almost all data can be found in machine-readable formats.

Use of commonly owned standards, as in whether bill texts require expensive or specialized software to read: 0, because there aren't better options than PDF and HTML.

Permanence that allows searches of prior years: 2, because bills can be searched back more than two decades.

The Sunlight Foundation gave an "F" to five states.

Perhaps the worst was Massachusetts, whose site doesn't publish roll call votes in a meaningful way, is often broken with no notice to users, doesn't allow bills to be read without Javascript and only keeps information back to 2009.

Texas could do better on transparency, for instance on the specificity of state lawmakers' financial disclosure and information about the governor's security expenditures.

But dare we say it? When it comes to the public's ability to track legislation, "at least we're not Massachusetts."

Flexing brain muscles

For teenagers, March means visions of spring break revelry, anticipation of prom, maybe the slow but sure creeping in of senioritis, right?

Apparently not if you're one of those highly competitive types.

But we aren't talking baseball, softball or track stars. How about biology Olympics?

Yes, there is such a thing. Members are being selected now for a Team USA that will compete in July at the International Biology Olympiad in Bern, Switzerland.

The Fort Worth school district reports that five students from Paschal High School have made it to the semifinals: Dominic Yurk, Erik Nguyen, Abrahim Sharaf, John Perry and Zach Brynell.

Semifinalists take a two-hour timed exam that must be sent in by Friday, then they must wait until mid-April to learn which 20 finalists from around the country will get to spend 12 days at Purdue University in June contending for four Team USA spots.

Intense class and lab time might not rival Herb Brooks' infamous suicide sprint session on ice with the 1980 USA hockey team, but this competition sounds like serious business.

For the final exams, students will study topics including cell and molecular biology, plant and animal anatomy, ecology, genetics and evolution.

The Center for Excellence in Education, which sponsors the event, says on its site that because the finals might conflict with graduation, participants who are scheduled to give a commencement address can take off 24 hours max for that.

But, it continues, "CEE discourages students from leaving for graduation, prom, or other school functions. Experience has shown that missing one full day of training is very detrimental to scores." (bit.ly/HbkfSK)

All four U.S. team members won gold medals in the international event in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012, and in 2011 the team "achieved the coveted Number 1 position in the world," according to CEE.

Gym rats aren't the only ones who flex muscles for the gold.

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