Analysis: Cheating Texas kids out of a better future

A school in Texas can fail to meet state education standards for four years before the state shuts it down. A lot of students can go without the education they're due in four years' time.

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Snyder is between Lubbock and Sweetwater, in West Texas.

Shepherd is north and a little east of Houston, in East Texas.

And Houston is, well, Houston. One of the country’s biggest cities. Home to the state’s biggest school system.

The school districts in each of those places are now in the state’s crosshairs, each having failed in at least one school for at least five consecutive years to meet the state’s academic standards.

That amounts to an institutional commitment to failure.

The preliminary school gradesdetailed by The Texas Tribune’s Aliyya Swaby — can be appealed, and probably will be, by schools at the very bottom and by schools and districts that think they got a raw deal.

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The three districts mentioned above are getting early attention because the persistent failures in at least one of their schools triggers a state-created dilemma: Close the deficient schools or subject the whole district to a state takeover.

Snyder is a small district, with only four schools. The junior high, with students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, got the F grade that put Snyder on the education map. Shepherd also has just four schools, but three of them — every campus except the high school — got failing grades.

They’re on the small side. But the third district is the biggest one in Texas.

Houston’s Wheatley High School has failed to meet academic standards for seven years in a row. The state gave HISD a waiver last year because of Hurricane Harvey. But the bottom line at Wheatley is that it was a failing school for all four years that last year’s senior class was in high school. And for the class before that, and the one before that. The kids in the graduating classes of 2019, 2018 and 2017 spent all four of their high school years in a failing school. For the kids in the four classes before that — 2013 though 2016 — the school was only failing for most of that time.

Houston is a special case for other reasons, starting with a dysfunctional school board that already had the worried attention of state officials.

It’s not as if these public schools were failing while the students were all right. The performance of the students in a school is what determines the grade. Like standardized tests or not, this is a big example of what they’re for: to measure kids across schools and school districts to see who’s getting educated and who’s not. If it works, it gives parents and educators and taxpayers and policymakers a way to compare one school or district to another.

The ratings are controversial. Lots of education experts think they’re oversimplified, that they leave the wrong impression and that they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. What they’re supposed to do, of course, is tell the rest of us how the schools are doing. We look at these grades for the same reason we look at what teachers say about how our kids are doing in algebra and history and science, to pinpoint problems, to direct our attention to the subjects where they need help.

If and when these or some other kind of school ratings work, it does the same thing.

Put another way: This is how you can tell whether the government is delivering Texas kids in any particular location the education that the state government was created to deliver.

It succeeds in some places. It fails in others. It fails spectacularly when a school isn’t up to snuff — and stays that way for seven years. Wheatley and schools like it cheat huge numbers of students out of good educations, and potentially cheat the whole state out of what those kids might become.