Analysis: In Texas education, finding and fixing problems is hard. And slow.

Arguments over standardized tests in Texas public schools obscure another problem with accountability: Why does it take so long to respond when educators think a school isn't educating its students?

 Tom Woodward

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Ignore for a moment the ways in which public school students are tested and how the state grades its schools and school districts based, in part, on those test scores.

Focus on what the state does with that information. How the institution of public education in Texas responds to what it thinks are trouble spots.

Standardized tests are remarkably unpopular. And to extend the influence of those test grades to make consequential lists of good and bad schools is to put quite a lot of eggs into a controversial basket.

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Those tests — it’s always “high-stakes tests” in the civic war of words — are the stuff of political campaigns, legislative debates, endless school board hearings, teacher conferences, education vendor fights and stressful handwringing by students and parents alike. But they’re just like smoke alarms, put in place to detect trouble.

We don’t have an agreed-upon way to measure how students are coming along and whether the schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The current setup clearly needs a lot of work. It would help to have report cards for schools and districts that everyone trusted, that reliably pointed educators to things that are working and things that aren’t.

But there’s a lot of work to be done on the other half of accountability: Fixing what’s broken.

Texas governments, from the historic pink building in the center of Austin to the board of the smallest school districts in the state, seem to have an extraordinary tolerance for mediocrity in public schools.

The punishments for schools seen by the state as failing can be severe. The Texas Education Agency gets involved when a school or a district gets a D or an F in the state ratings, and can pull some of them out of trouble. But a school district can go five years in a row with a persistently failing campus before it faces closing that school or having the state take over the district. Five years is 38% of a Texas student’s 13 years in primary and secondary school; that’s a long time, in education years, to wait for improvement.

And it’s independent from standardized testing and other controversial measures of performance; no matter what the measure of success, this is about what public officials do when a school or a district doesn’t meet the standard they’ve set.

The idea behind measuring the quality of public education is simple enough for a high school dropout to understand: Texans have wanted schools at the center of government services since the state was organized, and they want to know whether the schools they’re paying for are doing the job they’re supposed to do.

We grade everything from water quality to meat, from military readiness to traffic congestion, from crime rates to conditions in nursing homes. Why wouldn’t we measure schools, too?

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Texas has decided to educate its children. State laws require schools to provide every child in the state with a solid, basic education — in a perfect world, essentially the same deal for the kids in Highland Park in the Dallas area as for the kids in Kermit in the Permian Basin.

And if that’s going to work, there’s got to be a way to see how the schools in one place compare to schools all over the state, and to see whether public education in general is getting the job done.

The debate for how to measure that is well underway. Maybe the tests in place now aren’t the best way to do it. And there’s a lot to digest about how much harder it is to educate some kids than others, whether that’s based on economics, race, home life or other factors. There’s also a lot of information out there, strategies for educating students who come to class without all of the advantages of other kids in their own schools and in schools around the state.

Educators with the room to work can teach just about anyone.

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The grading, scoring and ranking is an attempt to find out where help is needed, to get the right resources in place to educate every Texas kid, like the state Constitution says. And then to send that help — maybe in less than five years. We measure fire departments partly by their response times. Why not measure the Texas education system the same way?