Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Compared nationally, Texas big-city schools come up short

Mayor Mike Rawlings asked the Bush Institute for help comparing Dallas schools with those in other cities.
Mayor Mike Rawlings asked the Bush Institute for help comparing Dallas schools with those in other cities. Star-Telegram

Opponents of high-stakes testing of public school students scored big in the last session of the Texas Legislature, and more bills on the topic have been filed for the session that began this month.

There’s a bill (HB 743) to restrict the time spent on each test, a bill (HB 406) to end the requirement that students in grades five and eight pass standardized tests before they can be promoted, and a bill (SB 176) to make test scores only one part of a long list of academic success measures.

At least 27 other bills related to testing and accountability were in the hopper as of Thursday. Filing of major bills continues through March 13. The session ends June 1.

Two years ago, HB 5 trimmed the number of high school end-of-course exams from 15 to 5.

Safe to say, testing is not the most popular thing on the planet.

Still, Texas has had formal accountability systems, including required student testing for more than 25 years. For good reason: We have to know how well our public schools, for which we spend more than $41 billion a year in state and local funds, are educating our children.

The best way to do that, and to check on whether some students or groups of students are falling behind, is routine testing.

Testing is here to stay.

Even at that, we don’t know enough. We know how our kids’s progress compares to other kids across the state, but how about across the nation and around the world?

Last year, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings approached the George W. Bush Institute, part of the former president’s library/museum/foundation office/policy complex on the SMU campus, with a request for help.

Rawlings wanted a way to compare public schools in Dallas with those in other major U.S. cities.

The institute produced the Mayor’s Report Card on Education, which it presented Thursday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual winter meeting in Washington, D.C.

No surprise, the people at the institute favor testing. Their boss was for testing both as governor and as president.

Kids in other states don’t take the Texas tests, so the report card focused on other measures. School districts in Dallas, Austin and Houston were among the 33 U.S. cities measured. San Antonio was, too, but that city is fragmented among several districts and is not a good apples-to-apples comparison.

Fort Worth was not on the list.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the closest thing to national tests, have been improving over time, and those in the Texas cities are no exception. But Dallas, Austin and Houston all fell behind the national average.

On composite ACT scores, a measure of college readiness, Austin tops all cities while Houston is near the national average. Dallas lags behind the average.

The Texas districts hover around the national average high-school graduation rates for urban districts, although a third of U.S. students who enter college or career training need remedial work in reading, writing and/or math.

Dallas, Austin and Houston all offer full-day pre-kindergarten, although not for all students as in 17 of the cities studied.

District enrollments in each of the Texas cities are growing (Austin the fastest, up 5 percent), whereas about half of those in the other cities in the report are declining.

The Texas districts tend to raise more of their money locally, while many other cities receive a greater state share of funding.

The median average teacher salary among all of the cities studied is $52,074 when adjusted to the national average cost of living.

Adjusted to the cost of living, Dallas is at $56,289, Houston $53,674 and Austin $42,985.

The report does not assign a number or letter grade for each city. It just shows how they stack up in many ways, including test results.

“More than ever,” the report says, “we need to know whether students are on the path to rewarding jobs. We can’t know that without measuring student achievement.”

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9