When the levee breaks in New Orleans drowned the city and some suburbs, much of the mass exodus landed in Texas, shipped there in large part from horrid shelters like the Superdome and Convention Center. And thousands, lacking the wherewithal to return, stayed — with many enrolling their children in Texas schools.

Now, nearly five years later, a long-term study of their performance shows that the students, many of them from among the nation’s worst schools, have generally thrived here — at least according to state test data. Indeed, their performance, initially well behind students of similar demographic backgrounds, now matches the performance of their Texas peers, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott told me this afternoon.

“We’ve closed the achievement gap,” he said.

The Texas Education Agency study tracked representative samples of the nearly 7,600 Louisiana exiles in grades 3, 5 and 8 during the 2006 school year. Over the four years since, “the increased reading performance of Katrina students … closed the gap in passing percentages between the students affected by the hurricane and all other Texas students” in the same grades, the study said. The Katrina exiles were even farther behind their Texas peers in math when the first arrived, but their increased performance “narrowed the gap substantially,” according to the study.

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Talk of achievement gaps typically involves the differences between students of different races or economic background, not different states. But Scott called me about the study, expected to be released later today or in the morning, because he knows I understand all too well the Texas-Louisiana achievement gap, as well as horrors of Katrina. Before moving to Texas last year, I covered New Orleans and Louisiana schools for the Times-Picayune for more than a decade and reported on the worst of Katrina’s aftermath — I watched some of those Texas-bound students as they boarded the buses, or other means of escape they could find from what seemed then like a doomed metropolis.

Many schools in Texas need improvement, to be sure, particularly those serving poor students in urban and remote rural areas. But the “education” students received in some of Louisiana’s schools — particularly those in New Orleans — bordered on the criminal. I can’t recall a problem the New Orleans schools didn’t have in the five years I covered them before Katrina: Concentrated and severe poverty; abysmal test scores; rotting, unsafe buildings; campus violence; eye-popping theft and corruption (up to and including the School Board President, who took a bribe of $140,000 for her influence in purchasing a math program through a now-convicted congressman’s now-convicted brother).

So perhaps it’s no surprise that many of these students fared better in Texas schools. (Though not all of the students in the study came from the city’s worst schools — an unknown number came from stronger systems — their demographic profile, overwhelmingly African-American and poor, suggest that many did.) If the study has merit, Texas educators should take immense pride in what they’ve done to stabilize the broken lives of the students who came to them, in dire need, often literally in tears. Beyond their lackluster educational background, they came carrying severe burdens, some even separated from families, all nursing emotional wounds no child should ever have to bear. The study notes that such trauma may have artificially lowered the students initial test scores — they missed a lot of school in the transition, and fought through immeasurable distraction. And so their subsequent improvement may be slightly overstated.

But statistical nuances aside, no one will ever be able to measure the true value of what Texans  — educators and so many others — did for my fellow New Orleanians during that time, and still today. Americans have come to expect such an outpouring of aid and charity in the wake of catastrophes — and they should; it’s part of what defines us as American. But we should never forget to say thank you.

[Updated:]

In response to two comments on this post questioning the legitimacy of this TEA study, I've contacted Robert Scott and asked for a more thorough explanation of how students in the sample of Katrina students were "matched" by various factors to a sample of Texas students. The study says the following: "Students were matched on gender, ethnicity, economically disadvantaged status, geographical region (the region where Katrina students tested in 2009) and scale scores on the TAKS 2006 reading/English language arts and mathematics assessments." Scott insisted the study was not doctored to inflate the scores of Katrina-exiled students, and promised to provide more context from staff researchers by tomorrow. I'll follow up with the explanation soon as I get it.

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[Updated:]

Here's a (somewhat simplified) explanation of the study methodology I got today from Chriss Cloudt, one of the TEA's researchers. Essentially, the agency tracked the performance of Katrina exiles in two different ways, comparing them to two different samples of Texas students. In one comparison, it purposely sought to match the incoming, flood-impact students with similar students in Texas, using a variety of demographic factors and the initial academic performance of the incoming students. In the second comparison, the agency compared the sample of Katrina students to a broader cross-section of Texas students, whose demographic characteristics did not reflect the Katrina exiles, but rather all students in various grade-level cohorts in Texas. The initial academic performance of the incoming students was initially lower than this second group, hence the "achievement gap" to which Scott refers above. After four years, the sample of Katrina-impacted students closed that gap in reading, and substantially narrowed that gap in mathematics, according to the study. In an unrelated clarification, I originally referred to the storm as "more than" five years ago, when it should have been "nearly" five years ago (August 29, 2005), as the language above now reflects.

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