HISD Lesson for Today: Tutoring Works, Now What Do We Do?

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It was a masterful performance. At the start of his press conference Thursday in which he announced gains in math and science student test scores, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced that "We're not going to talk about accountability ratings today because we don't have our final results back such as graduation rates, completion rates."

On Wednesday, Hair Balls released HISD's preliminary state accountability rating that showed a decrease in the number of exemplary and recognized schools over the 2010 school year because of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores HISD students received this year. The results, as we said, aren't final -- that'll come this summer after another round of makeup tests are factored in -- but even Grier Thursday was not predicting HISD will match its past levels. Because yes, he did talk about the accountability ratings; it was sort of unavoidable in a discussion of TAKS scores.

"I will say that this year is going to be tougher. For the first time in the state's history, they have added special education students' test scores to the accountability mix and they have raised the bar in math and science by 5 percentage points and in terms of what students' tests scores needed to be, in terms of passing and we no longer use the state projection TPM model," Grier said.

"So we know, like all the other school districts around the country and around our state particularly, that we're going to see a decline in the number of students who were at the exemplary, recognized and acceptable level because of those factors. Factors which our teachers -- that's out of their control. These are causes posed by the state. So I want to be very clear about that," he added.

TPM, or the Texas Projection Measure, is the system the state was using to boost schools' ratings. It used a statistical calculation to decide if a student who failed the TAKS is likely to pass it in the future and then gave the school a bump. Grier said it has given the public a misleading picture of how its public schools are doing.

But as Hair Balls noted Wednesday when it compared HISD's 2011 preliminary scores to the unofficial 2010 scores without TPM, there was a drop from 56 to 50 exemplary schools and from 113 to 95 recognized schools. The district stayed level at 91 acceptable schools and increased from 17 to 26 unacceptable schools. The exemplary gap widened if the 2011 preliminary scores are compared to the final 2010 scores with TPM added -- by which 101 schools were determined to be exemplary.

While the district certainly stands to gain from more students passing the TAKS tests after another try, Grier's mention of graduation rates (for high schools) and completion or drop-out rates (middle schools) could actually mean a few more schools drop into a lower category, as has happened historically in HISD.

Drop-out rates count all the students who don't return to a school by an October reporting date, students who can't be located, or students who do not report back. For example, according to HISD's August 2010 press releases, 8,000 students were enrolled at the beginning of the year in the nine Apollo schools. Recent HISD press releases place current enrollment at approximately 7,000. If the decline in enrollment is due to drop-outs, HISD could see further erosion of nine Apollo 20 schools' accountability ratings.

Completion rate considers the number of students who entered ninth grade and should be graduating four years later. Sharpstown High School, for instance, became academically unacceptable in the past due to extremely poor completion rates. The reporting on these numbers lags by one academic year.

Across the district in both math and science, 81 percent of HISD students passed the tests -- in each case an increase of 2 percentage points over the prior year. In social studies, 95 percent passed, an increase of 1 percentage point. The percentage of students reaching "commended" status in math and science hit 29, an increase of 2 percentage points and 4 respectively. Reading scores remained flat at 85 percent and writing scores dropped from 93 to 91 percent. While disappointing news in the face of all the improvement efforts that have been going on in the district -- particularly in the low-performing Apollo 20 turnaround schools -- this actually helps Grier in his argument that HISD needs a new centralized literacy program.

Some of the most impressive gains were made by students in the sixth and ninth grades at the Apollo schools. The $24 million program provides tutors to students in these grades at the nine high schools and middle schools where the program has been operating for the past year.

A total of 85 percent of sixth grade Apollo students -- actually only the ones who stuck around for the whole school year -- passed the TAKS math test, an increase of 22 points from the students who were in those schools in 2010.

And Apollo 20 ninth graders who remained at school all year improved by 16 percentage points to a 72 percent passing rate in math.

The thing is, the Texas Education Agency doesn't base its assessments on only the students who attended a particular school for the whole year, but on whoever took the test that day. Asked how many students were left out of the charts on display at the press conference, Grier and his administrators said they didn't know but would get us that data.

In a district that as Grier said has as much as "38 percent" mobility in some portions of HISD, the difference could be substantial.

Also, while the gains at sixth and ninth grade Apollo schools stand as proof to the benefits of one-on-one tutoring, the other grades at those schools didn't fare as well. The higher grades have extra classes, but don't do the intensive tutoring.

Grier pointed out that he was especially disappointed at the Attucks Middle School scores, which lost ground in every single testing category. He repeated his promise that if changes need to be made, he'll make them.

"Do I have concerns at Attucks? Yes. Do I think we could have done better at one or two of the other schools? Of course. Overall, top to bottom, I could not be more pleased. I can tell you, we will not give up on it. These schools did not get in that shape overnight. This did not happen in one year and you're not going to turn them around in one year. It's going to take more time," Grier said.

Key Middle School showed a substantial improvement in math from 40 to 61 percent and a 1 percentage point gain in reading to 70 percent. Dowling dropped in reading (84 percent to 78 percent) and gained in math (72 percent to 78). Fondren went up in reading from 77 to 82 percent and math from 74 to 80 percent. Ryan decreased by 2 percentage points in reading to 79 percent and increased in math from 67 to 73 per cent.

At the high school level, Jones declined in reading (77 to 75 percent) and increased in math (54 to 60 percent), Kashmere dropped in reading (83 to 79 percent) and in math (57 to 56 percent). Sharpstown High dropped in reading (84 to 81 percent) and improved in math (72 to 78 percent).

Lee High improved 1 percentage point in reading to 80 percent and substantially in math from 67 to 82 percent.

Axel Funez was one of two Apollo students present at the Thursday press conference because of their own improved test scores. The Lee High School freshman scored "commended" for the first time on his math test, a 21 percentage point increase in his math scores over the year before.

"It really helped me a lot. My tutor, she was always there for me," Funez said. Why hadn't he done well in math before? "Probably I wasn't paying attention or I was clowning around. I always had to pay attention to her," the 15-year-old said.

In terms of education experiments, HISD knows in the case of Axel Funez and others it has something that works really well. The question remains, of course, can the district afford the cost of this intensive, effective tutoring on a larger scale?

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