Two weeks before the presidential election, four researchers from the supposedly nonpartisan RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, released a flimsy 14-page “Issue Paper” purporting to show that the widely touted educational achievements in Texas, particularly among minority students, were not nearly as remarkable as Texas Gov. George W. Bush has advertised. Claiming that a statewide Texas exam the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) overstates the progress achieved by black and Hispanic students relative to the progress of white students, the recent RAND paper concludes that there are “serious questions about the validity of the TAAS scores.” The researchers found that the TAAS exams reflected greater improvement among minorities than another exam, the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.
Vice President Al Gore immediately seized upon the recent RAND report to discredit the entire Texas elementary and secondary educational system. “We need to measure performance with tests that have integrity,” Mr. Gore said. “We need to put an end to what’s called teaching to the test and any other short cuts that produce illusory test scores that might elevate the reputations of school administrators and politicians but actually do nothing to really raise standards or lift up our children.”
For the sake of argument, let it be stipulated that TAAS does show greater progress of Texas school children, in general, and minority students, in particular, than the progress demonstrated on the NAEP tests. However, does it logically follow that there has not been extraordinary educational progress achieved in Texas? No, of course not. Also, does it logically follow that Texas minority students have not performed significantly better than their counterparts in other states? No, of course not. In fact, there is substantial evidence proving that Texas’ overall educational achievements are real and that minority students have contributed a major part to those achievements.
As it happens, the RAND Corporation completed an extensive study (300 pages, as opposed to 14) in July comparing the performance of Texas students with the performance of students from 43 other states. The standards of comparison were NAEP reading and math exams. Here are the results of that study as reported by the RAND Corporation:
“One group of states, led by North Carolina and Texas,” RAND reports with reference to the math exam, “boasts gains about twice as great as the national average.”
“Even more dramatic contrasts emerge in the study’s path-breaking, cross-state comparison of achievements by students from similar families” that is, families grouped according to income, race, parental educational achievement, etc. “Texas heads the class in this ranking with California dead last.”
“Although the two states are close demographic cousins, Texas students, on average, scored 11 percentile points higher on NAEP math and reading tests than their California counterparts. In fact, the Texans performed well with respect to most states. On the 4th-grade NAEP math tests in 1996, Texas non-Hispanic white students and black students ranked first compared to their counterparts in other states, while Hispanic students ranked fifth. [emphasis added] On the same test, California non-Hispanic white students ranked third from the bottom, black students last and Hispanic students fourth from the bottom among states.”
Perhaps Mr. Gore will explain what is so “illusory” about Texas’ rankings on the NAEP tests. In assessing “the remarkable rate of math gains” in Texas, the July RAND study concluded that “the most plausible explanation” was Texas’ “integrated set of policies involving standards, assessment and accountability” in other words, the educational foundation built upon TAAS, whose indisputable role, to use Mr. Gore’s words, has been to “really raise standards [and] lift up our children.”