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School Miracles vs. Reality

August 16, 2003

The Houston school system brags a lot about its numbers. The city's former schools chief, Rod Paige, rode those numbers to his current job as U.S. secretary of Education. If only all those numbers reflected reality.

Texas now alleges that the Houston schools, which reported an incredibly low 1.5% dropout rate in 2000-01, neglected to count thousands of dropouts. Houston also looked good when the National Center for Education Statistics reported that it outshone four other big cities, including Los Angeles, on fourth-grade reading. It turns out that Houston didn't test half of its non-English-fluent students, thus eliminating what was sure to be a batch of low scores.

So much for the Houston miracle.

For that matter, New York, the only urban district to outscore Houston on the national reading exam, also kept half of its limited-English students from taking the test.

Numbers-polishing has become a sad byproduct of high-stakes accountability. That's important to remember as the school accountability movement pumps out an endless stream of data about student learning, including California's statewide achievement test results, released Friday.

Many states over the years have been reducing the numbers of students with limited English or learning disabilities who take the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Conversely, California has been steadily including more of those students, thus giving the public a more realistic, if decidedly unrosy, picture of student achievement.

Los Angeles, for example, excluded just one in seven limited-English students from taking the national test, so of course it came off looking far worse than New York and Houston in the national reading report. Only 11% of L.A.'s fourth-graders read proficiently -- about the same as in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The abysmal bottom line is that students in all of these large urban districts are foundering. Neither the mayoral takeover of schools in Chicago nor the years-long focus on accountability in Texas has overcome the learning barriers for urban children, the most likely to come from poor, immigrant and uneducated families. Trying to pretend differently keeps educators from looking for better solutions.

At a minimum, the National Center for Education Statistics should report the exclusion figures side by side with scores so the public gets a realistic picture.

California students have a long way to go in acquiring essential skills. No one denies this. That's the first step toward real accountability.

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