Tests Do not Agree, but, 80% of Houston District’s Students Can’t Read

News from the Houston Press about the Houston Independent School District which won the Broad Prize for best district based on Texas testing, is countered by other tests, notably the Stanford that reveal large groups of students are not ready for high school because they cannot read on grade level. Please click on the link for the Houston Press article about this, from which, several paragraphs are quoted below…this is an important topic in our test driven society….

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 theHouston PressI 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.”

“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.” (Houston Press)

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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