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.
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?
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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.