Vol 29, Issue 35 Print Issue

Guest Column: Wake Up — Schools Are Failing

Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business.
Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

Employers know it. Community colleges know it. Military recruiters know it. And now the ACT test confirms it. Texas local school bureaucrats are not graduating enough of our students ready for college or career.

According to the ACT results announced this week, fewer than a quarter of our graduating students are ready for college. Just 9 percent of black students are ready for introductory science courses in college. Only 13 percent of Hispanics have the necessary skills.

The sad reality is that the true picture is even worse. The numbers above are the percentages for those who took the test, which was only 39 percent of high school seniors. Sadly, more than 25 percent of our students dropped out before they could even take the ACT.

This is shameful and unacceptable.

The vast majority of good jobs in Texas will require credentials earned after high school. Yet the vast majority of our young people cannot garner these credentials.

The school bureaucrats blame everyone but themselves. They complain that 12 years was not enough time to get students over even the low bar of TAKS. They complain that the expectations of the new accountability system, to get students ready for college or career, are somehow unfair, even though they supported this legislation just three years ago. And they complain constantly that they need more money. Cumulatively, they've gotten at least $70 billion over and above the cost of inflation and enrollment growth plus the costs of special needs students over the past 14 years. Look at the results that investment has brought us.

This is bureaucracy at its worst: demanding more money, less accountability and less responsiveness to taxpayers and parents while producing results that do not meet the needs of our young people or our economy.

You have heard them complain about the STAAR exams. Well, now we know that STAAR is just one of the many messengers with the same message. Let me repeat the ACT results: fewer than a quarter of our students who make it to graduation are ready for any sort of college. This problem is confirmed tragically by the additional fact that almost half of the students in our community colleges cannot even take courses than earn credit toward a degree without passing through developmental education.

We need to wake up, and wake up now, to the deeper truth that it is time to stop blaming the messengers. It is time to fix the problem.

Tom Pauken, former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, said in The Texas Tribune that he wants to change the state's new accountability system because somehow that will help youngsters get technical jobs. He is wrong.

We do indeed need to get more youngsters ready for all sorts of jobs, including those in technical and manufacturing fields. But it is the old system that has failed to prepare students for both college and career. That is why we passed House Bill 3, legislation that has led to standards, testing and accountability that align perfectly with getting young people ready for the full spectrum of good jobs and opportunity. Give the change a chance to work, please!

Readers of the Tribune also have seen the views of a professor who opposes accountability. Based upon opinions with no grounding in peer review or published research, Walter Stroup attacked the theory behind state testing. It turns out that the theory he attacked has been established in research for more than 50 years, used in the best assessments in the world and designed to be sure that the tests are unbiased and fair. The tests, it turns out, are indeed quite sensitive to learning the state’s fine new standards.

In the face of all of the naysayers, we must stay the course. But staying the course does not mean that our new reforms are perfect. If there are tweaks that are needed, let us make them. If there are transitions that are needed, let us have those transitions. Business and civic leaders must listen to and work with educators who are ready to take responsibility and move forward with a proper implementation of these policies.

We now have a strong, forceful and intelligent commissioner, Michael Williams. I am confident that he will lead all of us to solutions and to ways of going forward together.

Parents know. Our citizens and employers know. Our leaders know, too. We must bring all of our young people to a diploma that means they are ready for college or career. It is that simple.

But it will not be easy. It will mean higher standards than the ones that we are used to. It will mean having tests that produce reports that make us uncomfortable. And it will mean accountability that will pinch, especially for those who are part of the problem, not the solution.

We have a lot of hard work ahead of us. Let us do it. Our kids will win, and our beloved state will win.

Hammond, a former state legislator, is president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business