Amid All the Good Things Going On in HISD, Why Is It So Many of Our Kids Still Can't Read?

HISD students may be able to pass the test needed to graduate, but that doesn't mean they know how to read.

Click here to see 2012 HISD campus PSAT scores.

One kid is a 17-year-old senior getting ready to go on to college who says he can't read even though he's passed all his state tests. Now in his final year of high school, he's playing a gigantic game of catch-up because suddenly it has hit him that he may not be able to skate by in college.

"I ain't going to lie to you. I can't read at all," says Tony (not his real name). "I hate stories that's real long. I panic on long stories. I'm not going to lie. I never liked reading." To get through the book he had to read for English class, Tony read it aloud to his teacher, who coached him through it.

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is the latest state-sanctioned test given to Texas public school students. Passing standards are phased in at a higher level each year; this chart shows how many students would be passing now if future passing standards had already been imposed. — George Scott. Click here to view larger version.
HOUSTON ISD: END OF COURSE TESTING FOR 2012-13 ACADEMIC YEAR The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is the latest state-sanctioned test given to Texas public school students. Passing standards are phased in at a higher level each year; this chart shows how many students would be passing now if future passing standards had already been imposed. — George Scott. Click here to view larger version.
Former superintendent Billy Reagan says many HISD students are not learning how to read, and he backs up the claim with an analysis of national statistics.
Courtesy of Billy Reagan
Former superintendent Billy Reagan says many HISD students are not learning how to read, and he backs up the claim with an analysis of national statistics.
Analyst George Scott believes the academic equity gap between white, African-American and Hispanic students in Texas remains much larger than most people think.
Monica Fuentes
Analyst George Scott believes the academic equity gap between white, African-American and Hispanic students in Texas remains much larger than most people think.
Kevin Farrington has a high school diploma, but says he can't really read or do math.
Margaret Downing
Kevin Farrington has a high school diploma, but says he can't really read or do math.
According to Billy Reagan's research, HISD Hispanic and African-American students in the elementary and middle-school grades are increasingly scoring below the 40th percentile on the Stanford reading tests. (NCE, or Normal Curve Equivalents, is a method used by U.S. educators to standardize student scores similar, but not identical, to a percentile rank.) Click here to view larger version.
Unlimited Access Educational Systems Inc.
According to Billy Reagan's research, HISD Hispanic and African-American students in the elementary and middle-school grades are increasingly scoring below the 40th percentile on the Stanford reading tests. (NCE, or Normal Curve Equivalents, is a method used by U.S. educators to standardize student scores similar, but not identical, to a percentile rank.) Click here to view larger version.
"While a few campuses show very strong reading scores, most are clearly in trouble. More than 2 out of 3 HISD grades reported scores below the 50th percentile in 2013. The reading issue is widespread across the district, at all levels at both the elementary and middle schools. Only 29% of elementary school students read at or above grade level." Click here to view larger version.
Unlimited Access Educational Systems Inc.
STUDENTS ON AVERAGE READ BELOW GRADE LEVEL AT MOST CAMPUSES "While a few campuses show very strong reading scores, most are clearly in trouble. More than 2 out of 3 HISD grades reported scores below the 50th percentile in 2013. The reading issue is widespread across the district, at all levels at both the elementary and middle schools. Only 29% of elementary school students read at or above grade level." Click here to view larger version.
A display of banned books at Furr High School energized students to read them.
Margaret Downing
A display of banned books at Furr High School energized students to read them.

A female classmate of Tony's says she can't get through the stories she reads in school unless someone explains them to her. She's passed all her state tests, too. How? She says she uses classroom-taught "strategies" on her English reading test and that if she underlines and highlights enough and narrows down her options, she has a better chance of guessing right by playing the odds. She failed her math state test because of the word problems, so she employed her English strategies there on the retry attempt and passed.

"You could tell me to read a book all day; I could read a book all day; I probably don't get it. And five minutes later you tell me to write an essay and I'll be over there struggling to write an essay because I don't understand," she explains carefully.

Another senior who passed every state test handed to him says he doesn't fare as well on his benchmark assessments (practice tests given during the school year). "I never thought I had a reading problem," he says. "I thought I had comprehended it but then when I have the questions, I don't know; I think I'm going to get them right but then I get the results and I'm wrong."

These students are not the exception. They are the rule at many schools in HISD, and as such they appear to be breathtakingly unprepared for either college or the work force.

Their HISD principal (we agreed not to name anyone) says that 80 percent of ninth graders arrive at the high school unable to read on grade level. And yet these same kids passed their state of Texas tests in all the years preceding. Most of these teenagers, this principal says, arrive reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level.

There were several common refrains from these high schoolers in a series of interviews with the Houston Press: I can read but I don't know what the words mean. I can read but not if the story is long or boring. I forget what I read and the questions at the end don't make any sense to me. I wish we could learn one-on-one. I don't like to be embarrassed in class. I need someone to explain it to me along the way. I'd like to have a tutor. A few said they hope to become engineers, figuring that wouldn't require much reading, just math. All said they intend to go to college.

Houston Independent School District is riding the glory train these days. In 2012, it lined up support for the largest bond issue in its history. Winner of the prestigious Broad Prize in 2013 for urban education for the second time in 11 years, it is frequently cited as a success story with a visionary superintendent — Dr. Terry Grier — who knows how to get things done. Its Apollo 20 program — which has cost at least $56 million so far — was engineered to help students at the lowest-performing schools through intensified instruction. In the past few years, student scores were on the rise for the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test as it was being phased out to make way for the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic ­Readiness).

But for the past several years, former HISD superintendent Dr. Billy Reagan has done his own annual assessment of standardized tests in the district — which he sends to whoever is superintendent at the time — and according to his calculations, if you're a minority student in HISD — and most of them are — all these good times are passing you by.

An analysis of 2011-2013 results from the national Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test done by Reagan's consulting company, Unlimited Access Educational Systems Inc., shows HISD reading scores "have declined at most middle and elementary grades when compared to scores reported two years ago...Only 29.6 percent of middle school students and 29 percent of elementary students read at or above grade level." (HISD trustees voted in spring 2011 to stop administering the Stanford at the high-school level.)

Many of these kids don't understand the books they're handed — in fact, they don't even understand the written instructions they're supposed to follow, according to Reagan. "Students with scores below the 50th percentile are very likely struggling to understand the instructional materials they are required to read. Students with scores below the 40th percentile can read almost none of the grade-level materials for their grade."

Reading scores are lowest at HISD campuses with predominantly African-American student bodies, the report says. These are defined as schools where at least 50 percent of the student population is black.

"The situation is most desperate in the middle schools," Reagan's report states. "In the past four years, there has been only one grade in one year that scored at grade level or above.

"Even worse is the ever increasing slide ­toward the bottom rung with 70 percent of the middle school grades scoring below the 40th percentile in 2013," Reagan writes.

Things are scarcely better at the predominantly Hispanic schools. "Of the 89 HISD elementary schools with Hispanic enrollments of 70 percent or more, 78.4 percent of the grades scored below the 50th percentile in 2013. An even greater proportion of middle school grades — 86 percent — scored below the 50th percentile," Reagan wrote.

Even Dr. Roland Fryer, the Harvard-professor architect behind the Apollo program, had to concede during an October visit to HISD that — unlike in math — Apollo's gains have been almost nonexistent in reading and that neither Fryer nor anyone else yet has the key to what works — a problem, he says, that exists across the country. At that same meeting, Grier stressed the importance of early childhood education and tutoring. He said the district was still struggling with developing a better method by which to teach teachers how to teach reading and with the difficulties of somehow fitting that into an already overfull school day.

Some people would like to sweep the 83-year-old Reagan's data aside, hinting that he just wants to sell his consulting company's reading program to the district or that he is just an old man who wishes he was still superintendent.

But a Houston Press check with other sources armed with both statistics and classroom reports verifies that the Stanford results match up with other nationally recognized standardized test results — while the Texas test results do not.

Case in point from a middle school teacher with more than 25 years' experience: "I had one student coming in from fifth grade. He passed the STAAR fifth-grade reading." She gave him the same fifth-grade test as a baseline to start the sixth-grade year. "He got four of 11 right.

"I would be ashamed to say if I was this child's teacher that this child passed the reading test last year. I know there's no way he passed," she says. "Now the pressure is on me. The data says he passed last year. They're just pushing them along."

The only resort most teachers have, she says, "is teach them for what's about to happen. Drill and practice. I hate to say the words, but 'teach the test.'"

Local education activist George Scott, known for several years now for his extensive, data-driven evaluations of local school districts, says his own research bears out Reagan's findings, in both PSAT comparisons and college completion rates — results that also belie the glowing ratings that parents might have come to believe their HISD schools deserve.

Scott maintains the state is delivering a big, comfortable lie to parents with its phased-in testing results, and it's one that's particularly egregious in that the state testing system was presented to the Texas Supreme Court and a federal court out of San Antonio in 1995 and 2000, respectively, as a constitutionally approved tactic to resolve the academic equity gap between white and minority students that was a legacy of segregated schools.

"You tell parents kids are reading at grade level when in fact you know they are not," Scott says. He points as proof to the Texas Education Agency's own report on STAAR test results. In spring 2013, 11,109 students in HISD took the STAAR third-grade reading test with a 74 percent overall passing rate.

But put in the real TEA-approved recommended passing standard that all students will eventually have to meet and only 37 percent of those kids would have passed. Enforce the state's own "real" passing standard and the percentage of white students passing third-grade reading drops from 92 percent to 70 percent, Hispanics from 75 to 34 percent and blacks from 66 to 25 percent. The pattern repeats among sixth-grade HISD students in reading. Overall, the passing rate drops from 64 percent to 34 percent, with white students dropping from 88 to 71 percent, Asian-Americans from 76 to 67 percent, Hispanic from 60 to 28 percent and blacks from 62 to 28 percent. Or an equity gap of 43 percentage points.

At the high school level in HISD, the overall passage rate for English I Reading was announced at 59 percent. Reset to the grade-level standard and that's 38 percent. For whites it's a drop of 86 to 72 percent, Hispanics 56 to 33 percent and blacks 54 to 32 percent.

As Scott told one group of public-school ­parents:

"If you are depending upon the state of Texas to tell you what your children do and do not know relative to genuine grade-level skills, you have misplaced your trust."

When Kevin Farrington first met his future fiancée, she didn't know what to make of him. They lived near each other, and she'd see him dressed up each day and figured him for a college student on his way to class. But then she saw that he was hanging with his friends all the time, and she didn't think that was such a great idea.

"Don't you have a future?" she asked him early on.

"Not at this moment," he says he responded.

Now 21, Farrington graduated from high school at 18, and to do that, of course, he'd had to pass all his end-of-course tests, which he says he did. Only trouble is, he couldn't read or do math well enough to hold down a job.

He had transferred from Willowridge High (too large, too difficult to focus, he says) to the Brazos School for Inquiry and Creativity — Southwest, a state-approved charter school, where, he says, the principal liked him. "I never got in trouble. She always told me, 'If you always try your best, I'll pass you.' I got along well with others."

Reading and math had always been difficult for him. "I was so frustrated with teachers. They'd call me out [to read in class], and I couldn't read what was on the page. The words was getting little and big and getting bigger." He says he got some help from the charter school teachers, but there were other students they were helping as well and they couldn't see him as much as he wanted. Some teachers, he says, just give up on kids too quick.

Before and after graduation, he appealed to his family for help. His mother turned him down flat; a brother tried working with him and ended up telling him: "You ain't never going to be able to do this." A sister told him, "I can't believe they let you graduate," he says.

His fiancée was more proactive. She got online and found Literacy Advance, a nonprofit designed to help adult learners. They set him up first with a math tutor, but reading teachers were in short supply. Farrington actually found his own tutor, a retired teacher living in his neighborhood; he brought her to Literacy Advance, and she's now part of the program there.

As Literacy Advance Program Director Kathryn Bauchelle puts it, it is unusual that Farrington found his own tutor, but the fact that he was given a diploma in spite of insufficient reading and math skills — that's not rare at all; there are plenty of adults that has happened to, according to her. "There was something about the way they were taught that didn't work for them," Bauchelle says.

Farrington says learning to read better would really do a lot for him. "I don't feel as stuck as I used to. I've got nephews not being raised by their mom and dad. I want to teach them. I can read them Dr. Seuss."

Mostly, Farrington sees reading as a direct path to a better, less embarrassing life. If he applied for a job, he says, "I wouldn't have to get the application and go home and have my [fiancée] help me. I could fill it out there and give it right back to them."

Asked if he felt optimistic about his future, he asked what that word meant.

Confronted with the discrepancy between the Texas state test scores and the Stanford results, Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said that the TEA doesn't look at Stanford scores. "No, we don't. That's a test only Houston gives. I'm not sure any other Texas district gives that."

Asked then how the agency makes sure its tests are valid, Ratcliffe responded: "Tests are based on our state curriculum, which is put together with the assistance of a lot of teachers who teach that particular subject at that particular grade level, and then approved and revised by the State Board of Education, and then Texas educators help us create the state test.

"There are teams of educators who look at the state test questions and tell us this is appropriate to test at this grade; this question would be better in fifth grade. Once we field-test our test questions, Texas educators and psychometricians (test experts) look at them to see if the questions were valid; is there any bias, race, gender, ethnicity? Every test question goes through a lot of scrutiny."

Test questions are developed by teachers who are then given performance reviews (and, in HISD, bonuses) based in large part on whether their kids can pass those tests and improve on previous years' scores. Somehow, that seems a huge disincentive to making the state tests particularly rigorous.

Ratcliffe did confirm the point that George Scott makes in his analysis that HISD's state test numbers more closely match those of the other standardized tests if you plug in the actual recommended passing rates.

"We are phasing in the passing standards on the STAAR. You are probably looking at the passing rates under our initial standards. If we had fully implemented the passing standards in one year, the failure rates, unfortunately, would have been higher," she said.

And how many parents are going to know that?

According to the veteran teacher, not many. "A lot of these parents are oblivious. All they know is their child passed, and they're happy; they don't care. They're not working with them enough at home to know this can't be right."

She says she and her peers are placed in an impossible position. "We're not able to meet them where they are and bring them up. They're so concerned about this progress and this data. What about the big picture? If they pass the test and they can't remember what they just wrote down, what good is it doing?"

The teacher says the students being done the greatest disservice are those who expect to join the working world right out of high school. "We owe them even more so they will be gainfully employed. How are you going to do that if you can't even read? Even the math test is reading now."

In October the Press sent Grier a list of questions about Reagan's Stanford assessments, asking among other things for the superintendent's take on the comparison between Stanford and state test results, how HISD students were being taught reading and how students are able to understand instructions from a computer program any better if some of them can't read their textbooks.

At a school board meeting, Grier assured us that he'd have answers, but after repeated requests to the HISD public relations office for just that, we were instead provided a copy of a letter Grier had sent to school board members in August — but no direct answers to any of our questions.

In his letter, Grier adopted a no-excuses stance and outlined a prescription for change including such things as tutoring, longer school days, a special reading program at five elementaries and a daily structured reading schedule for the lowest-performing elementaries. He addressed the Advanced Placement curriculum in high school, but nowhere did he comment on the difference between the state test results and any national tests.

George Scott, who in previous lives was a newspaper editor and publisher in Fort Bend County, president of the Tax Research Association and a senior researcher with the Harris County Appraisal District before becoming an independent consultant specializing in education and property tax issues, painstakingly put together a chart from the 2012 PSAT reading and math results in HISD.

Multiplying the results by a factor of 10 to approximate SAT scores, Scott determined that 69.2 percent of HISD students scored below a 900 (out of a possible 1600) on the combined math and reading scores, 47.4 percent below an 800 and 24.1 percent below a 700. There is no pass/fail on the PSAT or SAT, but most Texas state colleges and universities want to see at least a 500 on each part for admission. It should be noted that HISD is one of the few school districts to offer free PSAT and SAT testing to all students and to schedule the tests at the students' home campuses. As a result, they have a wider range of students taking the test than in most districts.

At ten of the district's schools, 90 percent or more of the students scored a 900 or below: Energy STEM, Sam Houston Math and Science, Jones, Kashmere, Lee, Scarborough, Sterling, Westbury, Worthing and Yates. Seven others were barely above the 90 percent mark: Austin, Furr, International School at Sharpstown, Madison, Milby, Sharpstown and Wheatley.

"I am not going to say someone who scores below a 900 is a failure and won't be able to handle college," Scott says. But odds are, he says, that such a student will have a much tougher time.

Legendary Furr High School Principal Dr. Bertie Simmons has figured out one way to get her kids to read. She put up crime-scene tape and mounted a collection of forbidden banned books. Nothing could have made them more appealing.

The idea came from last summer's idiocy in Arizona when certain books about Hispanics were banned. (Arizona lifted the ban on some Hispanic studies books this past October.) Some of the Furr High School kids were in New Mexico after winning an environmental justice award when the news broke about the books. The kids from Texas were outraged and brought their anger back with them, and Simmons saw this as an opportunity.

She put together a project to not only highlight these books, which included The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, but to pull in other books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, that had also been banned in the past. Students were ushered into the school library, where a flashing strobe light and sirens were used to reinforce the verboten feeling. Simmons backed all this up with frequent loudspeaker offers of rewards for whoever could text her first about why a particular book had been banned.

Teacher Pat Duffy remembers having to tell students — "male students!" — to put their books down and get into her grad lab class. "One of my students was so engaged he read one book three times."

Duffy has been among teachers trying to explore new ideas about reading, attending a recent seminar by Larry Bell, a motivational speaker out of Atlanta. Bell urges teachers to bring movement and music to the words minority students are trying to read, as a natural part of their culture to which they can respond.

"When students see those [words] on state assessments which seem to drive our nation now, when they see those words they freeze up," Duffy says. "'You're asking me in a language I totally do not understand. It's not because I do not want to understand it. I haven't been equipped to understand,'" she says.

Both Duffy and the Literacy Advance execs agree that one of the key traits for success that most poor readers lack is confidence. According to Bauchelle, many adult students come to her agency saying that no one had ever encouraged them to read before.

As for what special magic Literacy Advance provides to help its students, Bauchelle says it isn't a certain program. "The single biggest factor for us in our adult program is one-on-one." Students can learn at their own pace without pressure or distractions. How this translates to a public-school education or any other school setting is a huge stumbling block, of course. Tutors are expensive.

"Adults, if they come through our door, they come because they want to," Literacy Advance Executive Director Melanie Fisk says. "In almost all cases it's because they want a better job, they want opportunities for themselves, their family." She said that even if they've got a high school diploma, if they've been told they must take remedial classes at college, they recognize they need to fill in the gaps.

"One of our students, he dropped out, he left, and he realized at 19, 'Oops, that's not going to work.' So he went back just enough to get the diploma and graduated. He didn't really learn much; they just kind of pushed him through," Fisk says. "He has the diploma and wants something different."

Questions have been raised about the Texas state tests since their inception (field testing started in 1989 on the TAAS, or Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, which became operational in the early '90s). Generally those questions involve the rigor of the test itself or accusations of cheating (HISD is investigating two schools right now). All the state tests are criterion tests, designed to represent what a student should know at a particular grade in school. In theory, an entire class could score 100 percent.

National tests that Reagan and Scott use for their comparisons are "normed," graded on a curve in relation to how other students around the country have done on tests. "But when Texas sets a lower passing grade on its criterion tests, in effect what they're doing is creating a phony curve pushing vast numbers of kids upwards," Scott says.

In 1999, for instance, the National Academy of Sciences held a forum on testing at which Anne Smisko, then a TEA associate who went on to oversee the creation of the TAKS, was questioned about how Texas came up with its test questions for the TAAS. As Smisko described it, the State Board of Education set the passing rates after being presented with information on how students had done on a benchmark test.

Following this meeting, Stephen Klein, a senior researcher with the Rand Corporation, said that when his group tested minority students in Texas and elsewhere in the country, the Texas students' scores were lower than their TAAS scores. He called the TAAS scores "suspect" and said they did not prove that Texas had closed its academic equity gap. He also questioned how students who had shown considerable improvement on the TAAS test could take another test covering much of the same ground two weeks later and score so much lower. "It's exactly the same kids, one for one. How could they suddenly do so poorly?"

"When independent review has been done, the state's accountability test has not held up," Scott says. "The PSAT is yet another example of a credible academic instrument not controlled by the state of Texas that presents a dramatically different conclusion compared to the state's accountability tests."

"It was only after they went to TAKS that [TAAS] suddenly was not a grade-level test. Clearly TAKS was harder than TAAS; it would have been impossible for it not to be. The only time they acknowledge the test is not good, they are justifying the new test," says Scott.

Using the latest statistics from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Scott computed that of the 23,313 students who graduated from HISD high schools in 2002-2004 and were given six years to earn college degrees, only 564, or, 2.4 percent, earned associate degrees, while 3,164, or 13.6 percent, earned bachelor's degrees in Texas.

So either a whole bunch of kids got their degrees in another state or country, or there's a significant problem.

"Look at where kids go to college, look at the dropout rates in college; what explains the dropouts and poor performance in college better?" Scott asks rhetorically. "High scores, high passing rates on the state's accountability test or scores on a PSAT test? What is a more reasonable explanation for this reality: We have significant percentages who don't go to college, we have significant percentages of kids who go to a community college and don't matriculate to a four-year college, and we have significant percentages of kids who go to a four-year college and don't finish."

In a summary of his recently released Kinder Report, Dr. Stephen Klineberg of Rice University wrote, "Texas students score lower than the U.S. average in most subjects. In comparisons with the other 49 states in 2011, Texas 8th graders who took the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] ranked 37th in reading, 34th in writing and 10th in math.

"In 2009, only 58 percent of all high school graduates in Harris County went on to any further education; 11 percent of those who enrolled in a Texas two-year college actually graduated with any kind of certificate after four years."

And citing a U.S. Census Bureau survey, Klineberg wrote: "Texas ranks at the very bottom of the 50 states in the percentage of residents over the age of 25 with a high school diploma (80.6 percent).

"Only 59 percent of black children and 62 percent of the Hispanic children who were high school freshmen in HISD schools during the year 2004-5 actually graduated with a high school diploma four years later," Klineberg's report stated.

Reagan notes in his report, "The proportion of Hispanic students has increased by about one percentage point each year in the last five years. In 2013, 61.8 percent of HISD students were Hispanic. If the current trend continues, more than three-fourths of the HISD population will be Hispanic by 2020 and 90 percent of them will be reading below grade level."

There is no way to talk about the reading problem without bringing in the effects of being lower middle class or poor. This past October, the story of the Stanford University professor's follow-up study that verified an earlier study showing the enormous language proficiency gap between toddlers from more affluent homes and those living in poor conditions made headlines around the country.

Most of the high school students we met with for this story come from low-income backgrounds and rarely have books at home. There were a few bright spots: students with parents who read magazines, a couple of students who said they go to the library near their homes.

Most of them have absolutely no use for fiction. "I like reading something that I think is going to help me with my future. I just don't like doing something that I think is going to be a waste," one said, adding that Shakespeare's works definitely fell into the latter category.

Another senior talked about getting by in school. "I don't read that good. There's some words I can't read or pronounce, but I can read somewhat good. The last two [state tests] I took, I passed them. I didn't get very, very high grades. I would just pass."

These students know they have a problem, but how to fix it eludes them as well as all the educational experts who've devoted their careers to studying learning. With all his experience — Billy Reagan was HISD superintendent for 12 years (1974 to 1986) and went on to work for the premier textbook publishing firm Harcourt Brace Jovanovich before eventually opening his own education consulting company in 2002 — even he says he doesn't have a complete remedy.

"My greatest mistake, my greatest sin, was in creating middle schools," Reagan says today. "Because we cut off after the fifth-grade level, we quit formalized reading. Kids need reading teachers up to the seventh and eighth grades. We need to be changing back as quick as we can to K-8."

The former superintendent stands by the conclusions he's drawn from the Stanford results. "The Stanford is the most valid and consistent set of data that there is along with the PSAT in terms of actually where students are," he says. "I think it certainly dramatically points out the incredible crisis that we're faced with in particular in reading with our students, with little or no closing of the gap in most ­circumstances."

There is no one indicator to label a student college-ready or not. There's not even consensus on what it means to be college-ready, but most people tend to think it includes the ability to successfully negotiate a freshman college year without remedial courses. SAT and ACT scores have long been used to determine this, and in recent years there's been more emphasis on a student's GPA (though this has to be looked at in the context of what the high school's curriculum is) as well as performance on Advanced Placement tests and in International Baccalaureate courses.

As for work readiness, Rice's Stephen Klineberg points out that "good blue-collar jobs have all but disappeared" and gone are the days a high school grad can "go to work in the oil fields or on a manufacturing assembly line and expect to be able to earn a middle-class wage."

Scott says that all students, not just minority kids, have not received the educations they should have because of the false impression created by phased-in state passing scores.

"If 66 percent of the kids or 80 percent of the kids are reading at grade level according to the state of Texas, then I am organizing my delivery of instruction in a dramatically different way than at 37 percent district­wide. I get to pretend the problem is not as severe," Scott says.

"I can tell the parents of at-risk minority blacks that 66 percent of your kids are reading at grade level when we know that on a true standard, only 25 percent are. I don't have to solve that problem because I'm not even acknowledging that the problem exists," he adds.

"Billy Reagan makes this point, and it's a brilliant point. The point that Billy has made is that the accountability tests have masked the scope of the real problem. The state is under a constitutional burden to close that equity gap. It either does what is necessary to close that academic equity gap or it creates an elaborate hoax to pretend that it has closed that academic equity gap," Scott says.

"We have spent billions of dollars cumulatively on an elaborate hoax to pretend that we told the Supreme Court of Texas the truth in 1995, that we told the federal district court out of San Antonio in 2000 the truth, and we keep doubling down on the lies," Scott says.

What would happen if it were announced in a press release that only 38 percent of all ninth graders in HISD were able to read on their actual grade level: 72 percent of the whites, 67 percent of the Asians, 33 percent of the Hispanics and 32 percent of the African-Americans?

Or that with only three years to go before these kids go out into the work force or to college, only 25 percent of all HISD ninth graders were passing English I Writing; 54 percent of the whites, 63 percent of the Asians, 20 percent of the Hispanics and 20 percent of the African-Americans?

What would you have?

You'd have exactly what we have today.

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Think of the millions in salaries being doled out for all of the higher ups in HISD. Superintendent, Chief High School Officer, Academic Services Chief to the High School and Middle Schools, Chief to the Chief to the Other Chief of Public Relations CEO, on & on. A bunch of people who have ABSOLUTELY NO DIRECT impact on our kids' learning. People who are names on a website; signatures on mass emails. And yet, they are draining taxpayer monies away from hiring and paying teachers who specialize in teaching reading and writing. They could have signing bonuses for reading and literacy specialists, like they do for math and science teachers, and dispatch a large force of these professionals who have been trained to help struggling students to the schools that are lagging behind. Then, these specialists could pull small groups of struggling readers & writers every day to provide them the extra time & strategies they need NOT to pass a test, but to actually read & write for life after high school. The beaucratic bloat in HISD is harmful for kids & teachers alike. What a show of genuine education reform it would be if those at the very top would stop patting themselves on the back for a moment and assess what it is they ACTUALLY do to help real learning occur (reminder: why we have schools in the first place) and do what is right by our kids. Even if that means taking a pay cut to hire one more teacher or reading specialist who will actually have a clear and direct impact on the learning of students, and not just some press release about how they impact student achievement (as written by the PR Chief who earns A LOT more than an actual classroom teacher).


45 years of "education reform" and hundreds of billions of dollars invested in public education, and Johnny can't read.
The reason may well be, as suggested by Charlotte Iserbyt and others, because the system is not designed to TEACH Johnny to read. It's designed to create a perpetual "need" for "education reform" and "more money for education," perpetual job security for educational administrators and the marketers and purveyors of education materials.

It's real simple: we've known for more than 45 years what works. Phonics, spelling lists, skills and drills math, memorization of important historical facts and dates. Boring? I'm sure it is for some. But it WORKS.
If we want to return REAL education to Texas schools, we have to rip the outcomes-based methodology out of the curriculum.


I happen to be an optimist about our education system, and this is why: I don't think this situation is anything new. The difference is that these kids are handed diplomas, whereas in the past they merely dropped out. The same numbers of Americans are getting a real education, more or less. All the doomsday stuff is primarily due to the fact that we've spent the last 4 or 5 decades making some attempt to educate everybody, rather than a narrow sliver of American society.

I don't know how one overcomes the influences of family and poverty. A teacher gets one hour a day with a kid, five days a week, and with that five hours per week is expected to cast a spell of magic so powerful that a child will ignore the other 23 hours a day--or 17 hours, if you want to count the full school day--in which the overworked, two-job-schlepping single parent is barely around, the ghetto is casting its long shadow through the public housing window blinds, and the television is blaring it's reality-television-garbage for hours every day. And if the single parent is staying home and dependent on public assistance, chances are she isn't spending that time reading to her child.

We want schools to perform an almost impossible task. We tell these teachers that if they don't bring the goods, they'll lose their jobs (a very real possibility in the No Child Left Behind era), then we complain when, in desperation, do whatever they can to get that child to pass the test. 

You will never be a good reader if you don't read. And let's be honest. A lot of the adult voting public who raises such a stink over this situation is not much more literate than these kids. A day spent on internet comment boards ought to tell you that much.


I am a hiring manager for a high tech company and fully 80% of the resumes I see and the candidates I interview are Asian or Indians with the rest being white. The few blacks I interview are Nigerian and they have a reputation of not wanting to work or staying long in any one position. I hired one and he stayed three months after investing $15K in training in him. That won't happen again.

The future looks bleak for out native born kids and our home grown minorities in particular. They will remain the underclass. As I told my kids, if you don't get an education, you'll be washing some Chinese or Indian's kids Mercedes for a living. I see too many jobs paying $80-90K to start going to recent immigrants who went to school here in the US on a visa and stayed. Nobody talks about these high paying jobs going to foreigners. They talk about offshoring, or outsourcing, but the tragedy in the high paying jobs here.


I see small armies of kids at bus stops outside apartment buildings. Their families do not pay one cent into the education system. I do in the form of property tax and my kids have been out of school for years. We are educating a lot of illegal kids for free and that reduces the money spent on our own native born kids. I don't pay taxes to educate some Mexican's kids, I would however be willing to pay for bus fare back to the border. Then we can talk about the incompetent administrators who pull down six figures overseeing our crumbling and pathetic school system. I went to school with a lot of would be school administrators. It seems that its a well known secret that the way to big bucks is get a PhD in school administration. It does not matter whether you are smart or not. I broke every curve in the classes I took and I did my work at lunch at my full time job. These principles and administrators working on their MS degrees on the path to a PhD were dunces, absolute zeros...but they knew a principle does not have to be good or do anything they just need that degree. It shows. Recall the president of Texas Southern U Prescilla Slade? She epitomized the kind of person I am talking about.


Okay, lets break it down demographically. The truth is, most of these kids are minorities. The problem begins a home. I used to go to schools and give science talks. I did it in Austin and it was always the same, classrooms of "at risk" kids, all hispanic, a lot of them with kids at home, working night jobs, and sleeping through class. it was pathetic. These kids are high schoolers and they were doing work on a grade school level. So lets stop ignoring the 300 lb gorilla. We are breeding an underclass. My prediction is that in another generation or two, the blacks and hispanics will still be at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the number of whites will have decreased but the space at the top that they have relinquished will be filled by East Asians and West Asians(Indians). 

gossamersixteen topcommenter

Sub 100 IQ's, the stupidest people breed the most, then we have complete apathy care of the parents, and a total lack of discipline. Then to further that assertion we have schools that only teach rote memorization, they don't learn anything, they learn to pass tests only -- a lot good that does them in the real world. The shame runs down hill from terrible Government funding/choices, to the bad Schools/Administration/Teachers, apathetic ignorant parents, and finally the undisciplined lazy students who don't value an education.


The table showing graduation rates by High School is wrong.  Booker T. Washington should be split between The High School for Engineering Professions and Booker T. Washington.   Although the high schools share the same campus, the curriculum is vastly different.  There is no comparison.


In the late 1960's, I taught English for two years in a semi-rural Title I high school in Fresno County, California.  1/3 African American, 1/3 Hispanic (mostly Mexican and Mexican-American), and 1/3 white with probably 50% of whites being poor.  Generally, the Hispanic children "read" well and smoothly aloud but could not say in their own words what they had read (comprehension).  This type of "reading" is "word-calling".  Most of the students could not comprehend what they had read because they had no previous exposure to the subject matter or the context of the information in the reading materials.  They may have been taught to "read" through sounding out and connecting words but they could not hang what they "read" to any previous experience, exposure or information.  They had been taught technique without any meaning or content they could relate to.

"Learning" without having some experience to hang it on is just rote mindlessness and, perhaps, adequate test taking but not developing love of learning (expanding one's comprehension and mastery of the world).  Add that to the prohibitions of subject matter that strip classrooms of information, issues, and diverse opinion that would engage the students' interest, you are left with intellectual sterility, technique without meaning, and faux and frustrating concepts of education.

They also could not write gramatically correct sentences.  This is because children were (are) still being taught prescriptive grammar rather than descriptive grammar.  The latter teaches patterns that can be applied to writing;  the former teaches rules with (for these youngsters and even for myself) arcane descriptions of mistakes.  We know now that our brains (especially children's brains) filter out the "don't" in a sentence and will often "hear" only the words that follow.  If teachers are still diagramming sentences, they are wasting everyone's time because it bears no relationship to being able to write a complete sentence.

Insofar as comprehension of new vocabulary, dictionary definitions tend to be circular and mysterious for these youngsters.  They require concrete examples, pictures, and the flexibility of knowing all the forms a word can take just by adding suffixes and prefixes.  For some reason, nobody taught these children to use the correct form of a word in a sentence, nobody taught English syntax, and nobody taught about context and meaning.  Nobody exposes these youngsters to real life examples of the subject matter in what they read.  No wonder they can't comprehend.  And no wonder they find reading and writing to be meaningless exercises.


I went to an elementary school play last evening. Several words in the playbill were misspelled. Teachers and parents can't read or spell. Parents leave it up to illiterate teachers to teach their children to read. Illiteracy breeds Illiteracy. Society leaves it up to government  to hire the teachers and set the rules. Government is corrupt and populated with the ignorant and incompetent. Connect the dots.


I spend 10 years as an HISD sub teacher.  The teachers all saw this coming, but no one listened.  The only voices being heard were those of "experts" and "education reformers".

I started a Tumblr blog called "HoustonISD Confidential: My Years on the Front Lines of Education Reform".  I wrote an essay called "Confession Time" where I confessed that I could not discern the answers to STAAR prep materials (I don't think like the tests), but that a barely literate student could, using his "strategies".  He passed, which means he can get a high school degree---but I'm almost sure he still can't read---and he was such a great person....he's going to be lost further down the line.

I hope this article wakes people up, but I doubt it.  The money thrown at testing is huge, and that creates inertia which will take years to undo.  We are facing a looming crisis, but this is actually a bipartisan one, with the Democrats and Republicans ganging up on teachers and students to be sure that they never are able to fight this.  Thank you, Margaret Downing, for this article---maybe someone somewhere will read it and do something, but I'm not very hopeful.....


..."it creates an elaborate hoax to pretend that it has closed that academic equity gap..."

That sums it up.  Thank you, Rod Paige, Thaddeus Lott, and every other person involved in creating or perpetuating this hoax.


@toryu88  People who don't own homes pay rent to landlords who, in turn, pay property taxes. Yes, people with larger homes pay more in taxes than the landlord of a tiny 4-plex, but the argument that only homeowners pay into the system doesn't work. 

The average salary for a principal in the Houston area is $97,000. I understand your frustration with administrators, but suggesting they regularly earn over six figures is inaccurate. Other administrators (e.g. superintendents, assistant principals, student dean) make less. 


@gossamersixteen "rote memorization"

Have you seen a high school level STAAR English exam? It's pretty challenging. Let me illustrate. With the old TAKS test, a student might have faced an open-ended response question like this:

Explain Joe's [or whatever the character's name was] internal conflict.

With the STAAR exam, the question might be worded this way:

Explain how the protagonist's internal conflict drove the plot of the story.

In the first example, a kid only has to know one concept: internal conflict. In the second example, a kid has to know A) what a protagonist is B) what internal conflict is and C) what "plot" is and D) how internal conflict influences plot. And then they have to know how to articulate that answer in a paragraph of about 10 lines in length, with textual evidence to support their answer.

This is an entirely reasonable expectation of a 10th grader, I think, but it's definitely upping the ante considerably. And these are important concepts for a kid to learn, because they go toward literacy in a more general way. It's literature-based, but it applies to a broader ability to read in other subject areas. 


@Z.L.The table is not wrong.  It is taken directly from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  There are many 'mixed' schools within HISD.  Lamar is another example.  The rates are what they are no matter how HISD chooses to classify or categorize students at the school.


The story on your link reminds me of a 4th grade Mexican student I had my first year of teaching. She spoke almost no English, but was a whiz at filling out the crossword puzzles I gave out as activities to go with spelling lists. Because she always finished first, I thought maybe she spoke more English than it appeared on the surface. Being very naive at that point, it took a couple of weeks before I realized that she had figured out how to fit the letters of the words from the spelling list into the arrangements of squares on the puzzle without knowing any of the meanings.

The test strategies you describe belong in the same category of skills that can be used to find the "correct" answer, but have nothing to do with comprehension  (except I think my girl was pretty smart to have figured it out on her own).

gossamersixteen topcommenter

Well congratulations you're a part of the problem, you knowingly let an illiterate dolt pass. Thanks for your rationalizations though, they really helped him didn't they?

gossamersixteen topcommenter

@Anse@gossamersixteenAnd you seriously expect someone who barely speaks much less can read English to do that? How exactly do your educate them to the point where they not only comprehend those questions, understand how to effectively and correctly answer them? You have some predisposed notion that inner city kids are well educated, when quite the opposite is the truth. You have to a basic elementary education first, before they'll ever be able to even comprehend such a question. Excellent rationalizations though.


@ghscott2050 The table is wrong if it doesn't correctly respresent BTW's *true* statistics.  HSEP boosts BTW's stats every single time.  What school resides *in* Lamar HS?  


I have to say, there's something to be said about our kids figuring out how to survive the insanity of these tests. I agree---there's all kinds of intelligence---and coping and staying afloat in these times, is a skill that might help them down the road, especially if the people making the tests are the same ones hiring employees. At least I have to hope so....that something positive comes out of this.


@gossamersixteen They probably didn't have a choice. There is pressure from above to "do well" because the state government/public is demanding impossible things from the schools.


I so wish anyone making comments on education had actually taught students. The tests are completely out of control of the teachers. In fact, I have had some really smart kids fail, while struggling students passed? The teachers have been trying to say these tests are problematic, but instead of getting rid f the tests, they just get rid of the teachers. Please don't blame the teachers for any of this.


@gossamersixteenNo, she did not "let an illiterate dolt pass." The system is constructed to pass anyone who can figure out how to pick the correct answers.


@ghscott2050 I would only respond by pointing out that the ration of high-performing to low-performing students at Washington more or less mirrors the American economy in a larger sense. We call it the "1%" and not the "50%" for a reason. Not that I wish to give our economy too much credit for rewarding merit, mind you.


@Z.L. @ghscott2050  @Z.L. @ghscott2050 Take your complaint to the Higher Ed Board. Also, the fact of the matter is that HISD could, if it wanted to do so, provide much more precise data on an annual basis showing student progress in colleges throughout Texas at every university and community college in Texas.  For instance, I once paid $1,100 to obtain the virtually complete record of all enrolling freshmen at UT Austin tracking graduation rates, entering SAT scores and dropouts for every public high school in Texas.  It would cost some money to do a more comprehesive report involving all universities at which HISD grads attended but not that much comparable to the money HISD wastes every single day. Since HISD and school districts have uniformly concluded that this would be too much information for parents and taxpayers to have, those of us who try to track this are dependent upon other governments to pull available data.  Your use of the word WRONG is WRONG. Period. The fact that the results are not pretty is absolutely beside the point. At the end of the day, when such data was available, the overall picture would not change. No amount of griping about a table on your part or your apparent wounded ego will change the abundant fact that at Washington and other high schools throughout HISD, the college performance is miserable and that the vast majority of students earn high school degrees are unprepared. For instance, the most recently reported report available on all Washington graduates entering Texas colleges and universities in 2012 shows that 37% of them had a GPA of less than 2.0 and that a total of 57% had a GPA of less than 2.5.  It also shows that 9 Washington graduates out of 49 enrolled in a four-year university had a GPA of 3.0 and 5 students out of 34 students enrolled in a community college had a GPA of 3.0 or over. Translation? There are a few high performing students coming out of Washington and there are more low performing students coming out of Washington.  The vast majority of students graduating from Washington don’t have future academic careers. The brutal truth is that significant percentages are not prepared for a modern workforce.  Perhaps you ought to be more focused on this reality than wishing and hoping that a table would be more to your liking by apparently focusing on those that do well.  Honest quality control analysis does not just focus on the good; it focuses on everything.

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