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Strama and the Mystery of the Texas Score Contradictions

State rep puzzled by how students do well and badly at the same time

By Richard Whittaker, 9:00AM, Mon. Jun. 18, 2012

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin:
Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin: "(Employers) are not going to give us credit for when they disaggregate our sub groups. They just want to know, can they hire people here?"
Photo by John Anderson

Is Texas doing well in education, or is it doing badly? According to Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, it depends on how the numbers are sliced up, and who is doing the slicing.

As a member of the House Public Education Committee, on Tuesday Strama will be grilling the Texas Education Agency over the STAAR tests. The first round of preliminary results were somewhere between alarming and baffling, but Strama has been drilling down into a lot of state numbers recently.

About a month ago, the TEA put out a press release touting the state's performances on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP scores. "It's not a test that everyone takes," said Strama, "You take a statistical sample from each state to compare how each state is doing."

NAEP breaks down students by ethnic grouping, "so they compare African-American kids in Texas to African-American kids around the country." Now according to the TEA press release, Strama said, "Texas did great. African-American kids in Texas were in the top five in the country compared to all other students, Hispanic students in the country were in the top six or seven, Anglo students were in the top five."

Out of curiosity, Strama went to the NAEP website, just to look at the details. "I just really wanted to know if I really should be proud of our progress," he said. And that's where he found a number that surprised and confused him. "All three of our sub groups were in the top ten in the country, but in the aggregate, we were 29th in the country."

Strama's response? "That's statistically impossible." Texas can't be in the top 10 and yet still be 29th. So his immediately sent the data to education experts around the country. It was Uri Treisman at UT's Charles A. Dana Center who got back to him with the interesting answer: Both numbers were correct.

Here's how that works. Treisman told Strama, "Our percentage of African-American and Hispanic kids is so much higher than the rest of the country. Because African-American and Hispanic kids underperform in every state, we can be in the top 10 in all three sub-groups when you disaggregate, but when you aggregate, you're aggregating a larger number of the lower performing subgroups, and that drops us."

So Strama was left with the same question that puzzled him before. "Are we doing well, or are we doing very mediocre? The answer is, if you look at us by subgroup, we're doing very well. But if you want to know what employers of the future want to know, which is how well prepared is your workforce, we're mediocre."

The simple takeaway is that the cut price Texas educational system has no idea how to teach its growing majority-minority population. That's troubling for Strama since the state is facing "an explosion of students, many, many, many of whom are more expensive to educate because they start kindergarten a year and a half behind grade level, they often don't speak English at home, so they present extra challenges for educators. It makes our education system expensive, and we're not funding it."

That all flies in the face of the state's supposed commitment to satisfy employers by making every child college or career ready. Strama said, "They're not going to give us credit for when they disaggregate our sub groups, they just want to know, can they hire people here?"

And here's the scary part. The Texas talent pool is already worryingly shallow. Strama has been one of the legislature's forward-thinkers on the tech sector (the dumbest move Speaker Joe Straus ever pulled was dissolving Strama's Technology, Economic Development & Workforce Committee), and he's been hearing worrying rumblings. Take the big March announcement by Apple that the tech giant is opening its American operations center in Austin. Strama said, "While that Apple announcement is wonderful new for Austin, there are tech companies saying, 'When they fill 3,500 tech positions, that drains the talent pool.' It makes it hard for them, it makes it hard for Apple, and it makes it hard for the rest of the technology ecosystem to find the employees."

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