Casualties of War

Many parents, teachers and students at Isaacs thought HISD made a mistake when it ­proposed making them an Apollo school.
Mandy Oaklander

In the end, the hard work and Saturday classes, the pizza parties and pep rallies, the incredible amount of time spent on drill and kill, all the sacrifices and the hoopla just weren't enough.

Discounting years of their own press releases touting the number of schools that are "recognized" and "exemplary," Houston Independent School District trustees took turns at their board meeting last Thursday night telling parents and teachers that the state tests they'd staked their kids' futures on weren't worth much more than a bucket of warm spit.

"The TAKS test means less than it ever did," trustee Harvin Moore said. "It does represent something. Unfortunately it represents less and less with each passing year. And we're fooling our schools, we're fooling our teachers and we're fooling our public if we continue to focus solely on the TAKS test."

Parents and teachers from Isaacs and Scarborough elementaries came to argue that their schools shouldn't be placed among the district's Apollo 20 turnaround project for low-performing schools because, after all, they were "recognized" by the Texas Education Agency in large part because of their performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

A mistake had been made, the Reverend Howard Sims Sr. told trustees. "Isaacs has been recognized for years, and now the district says we're below standards. There are plenty of schools below Isaacs in math and reading," he said. He and other speakers had done their homework; 44 schools had scored below Isaacs in reading and 40 in math. If all the TAKS scores were combined, 20 schools scored below Isaacs.

They were then told by the board in terms both kind and harsh — depending on whether it was trustee Harvin Moore and board president Paula Harris (kinder and gentler) or Larry Marshall (channeling his inner Old Testament prophet persona) — that being "recognized" by TEA doesn't really mean your school is doing a good job academically and that several of their test scores on the national Stanford standardized tests were way too low.

"TAKS is not a competitive test. You've been misled and misdirected if you think being recognized is okay. Recognized is not okay. TAKS has no rigor," Marshall told the room before joining his colleagues in a series of votes that finally resulted in a 5-4 decision to spend $1.6 million to expand Apollo, its culture and its tutors to 11 elementaries next fall.

During the hours-long debate, complete with three separate votes, some bitter exchanges took place — unusual for a board known for presenting a united front. Trustee Carol Galloway complained they were rushing things and tried at one point to stop Superintendent Terry Grier from talking. Immediate past board president Greg Meyers told fellow trustees they had no business tinkering with the number or names of the schools selected for the program, and if they did so he would hold his fellow board members accountable, not the administration. Trustee Larry Marshall, arguing against any delay in Apollo expansion, said "I urge this board to maintain its sanity."

Isaacs PTO President Maria Sustaita said she was at a loss to explain the board's decision to the parents of students at the school. "We are not failing nor low-performing," she insisted, citing several other test scores from Isaacs students, including a 94 percent passing rate and a 41 percent "commended" rate on the third-grade Spanish-language version of the math test. She said Isaacs parents were confused by why the district wanted their school in Apollo. They thought they were doing so well.

Reached the next day, Sustaita, who also works at the school, said she was developing a map for parents to tell them how to get to the trustees at HISD headquarters. She's not going to explain what happened because she can't, she said. "Let them figure it out once all the parents pile up over there."

During the discussion Thursday night, Grier appeared to be genuinely at a loss to understand why a school wouldn't want Apollo's extra tutoring help. "This is not a way to stigmatize schools; this is a way to offer extra help. If I could be king for a day, we would want to do this in all of our schools."

Sustaita's response? "Tutorials are good. We already have tutorials. We already have Saturday camp. We keep students after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays." She pointed to passage rates of "84, 85, 83 percent. If those scores are bad, what the hell is good?" she asked. "And why all of a sudden do you want to go with the Stanford?"

Well, the HISD trustees want to go with other tests because — they're right — the TAKS test isn't particularly rigorous. A passing score is little guarantee that a student is going to go on to succeed in the next grade, let alone college. There's still a sizable gap between national scores and the TAKS, and a similar chasm between being recognized by the state and having too many kids reading below grade level in the third grade.


But while they've been re-educating themselves on what's more important, the trustees and HISD administration left the community behind.

Harvin Moore played catchup at Thursday's meeting, readily admitting that the district's promotion of TAKS test results is confusing.

"When the state says you're recognized, that is something to be happy about, but it doesn't mean what it used to mean. And even if you're recognized, it may not be very good at all," Moore said.

"If you look at third-grade reading, Isaacs had 86 percent passing on the TAKS test. But on the Stanford test third-grade reading, 38 percent. That is the gulf between what the TAKS is measuring and what the Stanford is measuring. They're not exactly the same thing. But that means they're significantly below grade level. Thirty-eight is below grade level."

"We've talked as a board about, 'Let's tone down a little bit the pep rallies about TAKS,'" Moore told the filled auditorium. "The TAKS test is a minimum-skills test."

Board President Harris, remembering all the past celebrations about TAKS scores, expressed regrets, but Moore disagreed, insisting they were justified when the TAKS still had meaning. But the board has not shirked its duty, he said; its members had been emphasizing the importance of being "commended" rather than just passing TAKS, and had talked about the Stanford test results for several years now.

Still, as trustee Anna Eastman noted, "We continue to put out notices about how proud we are of our recognized schools."

Moore alleged that TAKS, like other state tests, "is subject to gaming by the people who set it up, which is the state."

The No Child Left Behind Act, which Moore said he endorsed, has "a significant flaw," and that is that while the federal law said that 100 percent of students should pass all the tests by 2014, it did not develop a test itself and left that to the states.

"NCLB left out the whole concept of what anyone had to learn," Moore said, only telling schools they would be in trouble if they weren't meeting the ultimate deadline and making adequate yearly progress along the way.

So states set up their own testing systems and soon came to realize, Moore said, "that if their kids weren't improving fast enough, then the only thing they could do to make sure no child was left behind by 2014 would be to make the test a little bit easier each year." Eastman echoed this, saying: "We have focused so long on these state ratings that are manipulated by the state. Every year they change what the passing rates are."

Reached in Austin, TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman denied that Texas has been making its test easier to ensure a higher passing rate. Each year's test is evaluated for how many questions are easy, medium or hard, and "the number of questions the students have to get right may be adjusted every year," she said. But that's to maintain a level playing field from one year to the next, not to make the tests easier.

The reason passing scores are up, she said, is that teachers have begun to understand what's being tested and how it's worded and are better able to help their students master the material.

Marchman said comparing TAKS and Stanford is unfair. TAKS is set up to test the facts that Texas thinks its students should know; Stanford is national and has a whole different basis, she said.

In any event, starting next fall, the TAKS test goes away, to be replaced with the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test, designed to be end-of-year tests at the high school level in specific core subjects.

Since student scores typically fall with the introduction of any new standardized test, this should make 2014 especially exciting for Texas schools.

Why would a school turn down extra funding for tutors for its kids? Even the best and brightest students tend to do better with a little extra help.

Besides the stigma of being labeled a facility in need of help, a school and its parents may not want what they see as interference in their activities. Parent Maria Gomez was one of several speakers concerned about what would happen to the children if teachers and administrators were replaced. And they have only to look at the upheaval at the nine middle and high schools already in Apollo to know those fears are warranted.

"Teachers in these schools who are doing great jobs have nothing to worry about, " Grier said. But the teachers and administrators who are not are going to be gone, he promised.


The history of HISD in modern times is that of a school district with strong decentralization. A principal decides how to spend his or her money in terms of personnel and reading or math programs adopted. If he's a success, he continues; if not, he's counseled with or removed. In the case of the Apollo schools, HISD administrators have a much more controlling relationship with their principals — among other things, they tell them the length of their school day and how to spend their Title I money.

As trustee Carol Galloway put it, "Schools that really need the medicine are the ones that should get it." She wanted recognized and exemplary schools to be exempt. She urged the board to delay its vote on expanding the program until after it gets final test results from the nine middle and high schools that have been part of the project this year.

She also questioned moving ahead with Apollo when this year's starter program still isn't fully funded ($5 million will have to come out of the General Fund if HISD is unable to raise the rest of the money privately), as well as the district expanding this program at the same time it is talking about cutting teachers and other personnel next year to deal with a loss in state funds anticipated to be between $202 million and $348 million.

Galloway's amendment to put things on hold lost 5-4. She was joined by trustees Eastman, Juliet Stipeche and Michael Lunceford.

Then trustee Manuel Rodriguez tried to split the baby by offering an amendment that would start Apollo in six of the elementaries, with five more on hold till the district gets some more testing results in.

That one went down in a 6-3 vote after Grier stepped into a back room and got on the phone to Dr. Roland Fryer, the Harvard researcher with EdLabs who has been working with HISD on the Apollo project. Grier said Fryer told him halving the number of schools involved would render the experiment scientifically worthless. It needed to be all 11 or nothing.

In the end, Meyers, Marshall, Moore, Harris and Rodriguez voted to go ahead with the program. Meyers argued that it made no sense to wait to help the students at these schools, that there was a sense of urgency about getting them more resources.

"I am not going to support delaying something that's going to make a difference in the lives of kids.   We have children that are not reading on grade level, and that's an issue we're getting our arms around," Meyers said.

Not everyone who spoke from the floor at last Thursday's meeting was against Apollo. Malcolm Carter, an eighth grader at Key Middle School, said how much its academics had improved this year. Marilyn Cruz, principal at Tinsley Elementary, said she looks forward to Apollo.

But others wanted no part of it. Scarborough teacher Diana Diehl asked trustees to "redirect the money" away from them and to other needs such as fully funding full-day pre-K.

Parent Eva Hernandez, speaking through a translator, said, "Supposedly, Isaacs is a recognized school. Now they say the school needs help. Why did they say one thing and then another? I don't understand."

Around the room Hernandez and others appeared visibly deflated as the message was hammered home — HISD needs a higher goal than just passing TAKS. It needs excellence of a different, more rigorous nature to better provide for its students.

But these were the true believers, the ones who bought into what HISD had told them: that their schools and their children were something special. The ones who would come to school board meetings that went on forever, dragging their kids with them.

The fact that HISD is doing the right thing by battling its way to a higher standard didn't lessen the sting. Parents and teachers had been rightfully proud of their schools, their children's achievements.

Now it has been taken away. They have been rendered ordinary.

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