Superintendent Terry Grier released Houston ISD's first-round state test scores for fifth and eighth graders on Thursday, acknowledging at the start of the press conference that the results for middle school students in the Apollo 20 pilot project were of the most interest.
And those particular results from tests taken this spring, while promising in several cases, were a bit mixed -- which may or may not explain why HISD did not immediately release this public information when asked for it earlier this week by the Houston Press.
Commenting on the fact that eighth graders at Apollo schools increased their reading scores overall by 13 percentage points compared to the district average increase of nine points, Grier said: "So is that progress? Yes. Is that victory? Don't think so. It's a small snapshot. I think it's still concrete evidence that we're moving in the right way."
"Lots of folks want to see results right now. This is a three-year project, a three-year school turnaround effort. Some of these schools are our lowest performing kind of middle schools in the district. We have sat here as an organization year after year, sat by and we watched the schools slowly sink to the level where they are now," Grier said. "And to think that we are all of a sudden going to get them to the top quartile or even to the 50 percentile at the end of one year is wrong-hearted and that certainly was not our expectation. Most research shows that turnaround models, even ones that are successful, take four or five years. We believe we're going to turn around these schools in three years."
He also pointed out that "We know these scores are going to change," and predicted that there would be a significant improvement in the passing rate among the students who take the test the second time later in this school year. He cautioned against reading too much of anything into them.
Accompanied by Board President Paula Harris and Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, Grier presented statistics comparing this year's "first take" eighth grade results in reading and math to last year's first take results for seventh graders in those schools. He called it apples to apples in explaining why the charts didn't reflect the more traditional (and Texas Education Agency method of) comparing the same grade levels in making score comparisons.
Overall results showed the percentage of Apollo 20 students passing reading in the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills increased by 1 percentage point to 80 percent, compared to a 1 percent decrease in the district overall. Those reaching the "commended" level -- something Grier and the trustees have repeatedly declared is the real threshold for college readiness -- increased 2 percentage points to 23 percent, the same rate as the district.
Overall passing on math was 65 percent for Apollo students, an increase of 2 percentage points but 1 percentage point less than the district's increase. As for the commended level, 11 percent of Apollo students made it in math, a 2-percentage point increase, which is the same rate of increase as the district.
Grier set the stage earlier in the day at the morning's board workshop on the budget for less than spectacular results when Apollo 20 sparked some discussion and he said no one should ever have expected a one-year turnaround for these schools.
The most dramatic gain was scored by Key Middle School, which went from 63 percent passing reading to 74 percent and most dramatically for 27 percent to 51 percent in math.
Grier and Harris said an important difference at Key was that the principal there was hired earlier than any of the others at Apollo middle schools and had a chance to assess her staff and recruit.
No one mentioned the elephant in the room, namely that Key has had dramatic improvements in test scores before and been investigated for TAKS cheating, an allegation that an HISD report judged warranted. Which is also why Key got a new principal early.
But this was a new day and a brand-new principal. And as noted by Harvard researcher Dr. Roland Fryer, who has been working with HISD on the Apollo turnaround project and attended the press conference, it's a lot easier to grow scores from 20 percent to a 50 percent passing rate than it is to move from say 75 percent to 95 percent. He said he wanted to look at the micro data, down to the individual child level, before declaring whether Apollo was working or not. Meanwhile at Attucks Middle School, while math passing rates held steady at 76 percent, reading dropped 10 percentage points from last year, from 64 percent to 54 percent. While the percentage of commended students in reading improved from 16 percent to 21 percent, in math there was a drop from 10 percent to 3 percent.
Ryan Middle School dropped from 83 percent to 79 percent in reading, but improved in math from 62 to 65 percent. Dowling Middle went up a point in both reading and math to 83 percent and 71 percent respectively. Fondren Middle dropped in both categories from 88 to 82 percent passing in reading and from 77 percent to 71 percent in math.
"We have some particular schools where we're less pleased with the data and there's going to be some changes at those schools," Grier said. "There may be some leadership changes and there may be some staff changes. We know as an organization you simply can't continue to do the same thing the same way and expect different results."
Among Apollo 20 students overall, 69 percent passed the eighth grade math test; 61 passed it last year. The 8-point increase compared to an overall district improvement of 4 percentage points. A total of 83 percent passed eighth grade reading, compared to 70 percent of students at Apollo schools last year.
Grier pointed to the improvement shown by Apollo 20 students who were in "double dose" classes in either reading or math. A total of 70 percent of students who received extra instruction in math passed the eighth grade test; 49 percent passed the seventh grade test.
Another 76 percent of Apollo students who had extra English classes passed the 8th grade reading test, compared to a 56 percent passage rate in 7th grade last year.
Not everyone is a fan of the Apollo 20 project or its price tag of $24 million this year. Critics say there are children at all HISD schools who need help and question why so much money is being spent on a relatively small portion of the district's children. Grier argues that drastic measures are called for at schools which have been ignored by the district for years.
Board President Harris echoed that Thursday.
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"When you look at the last decade of keeping the same people, programs, practices in and having the attitude that's the best those children can do, they'll never get up to the 30, 40 percent in math."
"It's not the children. These children can perform at high commended mastery rates from low socioeconomics whose parents do not show up, whose parents let them look at very bad movies and let them stay up late and eat all the candy they want and not read one book. When they get into a classroom, the teacher can close the door and she can make a difference. I'm a firm believer that these kids can learn."