Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted on Jan. 28 by Austin American-Statesman staff, a sister property of Cox Media Group.
By W. Gardner Selby – American-Statesman Staff
Andrew White, the Houston investor who is one of the Democrats hoping to deny Greg Abbott a second term as Texas governor, says the state’s public schools rank poorly.
White specified at his campaign kickoff in December: “For schools, we’re 43rd in the nation. Let me say that again. We’re 43rd in the nation. How can we claim that we’re preparing our kids for tomorrow when we can barely prepare them for yesterday?”
It’s not unusual for a candidate to suggest schools need a lift. For instance, Abbott, a Republican, promised to make Texas “No. 1 in the nation for educating our children.”
It’s also worth noting there are varied ways of comparing schools. For instance, US News & World Report rankings, drawing in part on student scores on national math and reading exams, place Texas’ public schools 41st — though the state’s high school graduation rate ranked fifth.
So White made us wonder about the ranking he cited.
White spokeswoman Desi Canela, asked how White reached the declared ranking, pointed to news accounts quoting a study released toward the end of 2015 by Education Week, a national publication that reports on education from kindergarten through high school. The Texas news accounts focused on the study’s No. 43 ranking of Texas schools based on dozens of indicators across the categories of school funding, student achievement and future student success.
When we turned to verify the No. 43 ranking, we learned that the cited study was amended a few weeks after publication to correct errors in its initial school finance section. As a result, Texas schools edged up to rank 41st among the states (42nd if you count the District of Columbia). Also, we noticed, more recent Education Week studies, released in December 2016 and January 2018, respectively, show Texas schools ranking 40th among the states (41st if you count D.C.).
To our inquiry, Sterling Lloyd of the Education Week Research Center summed up by email: “In the 2016 report, Texas received an overall grade of C-minus and a score of 69.7. In 2017, it earned a C-minus (70.2). For the 2018 grading, it got a C-minus (70.6).
“So, the slight improvement in ranking between 2016 and the subsequent years reflects a modest gain in the state’s numerical score if not its letter grade. This change was driven by an improvement in Texas’ School Finance score, where it gained about a point between 2016 and 2017 and about a point between 2017 and 2018. The improvement for Texas in the School Finance score reflects gains on equity in the distribution of funding across districts within the state. For instance, the gap between the highest- and lowest-spending districts in Texas narrowed from 2016 to 2017 and from 2017 to 2018.”
We looked next for perspective outside of Education Week.
We asked Children At Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit that appraises schools, what it makes of White’s cited rankings. Andy Canales, director of the group’s Center for Social Measurement and Evaluation, replied that the nonprofit, which has worked with Education Week, considers the publication’s reports ranking the schools in each state to be sound studies “in line with research by Children At Risk.”
Holly Eaton of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, which was among education advocacy groups that we asked to weigh in, pointed out that Texas spends less per student than many states.
Generally, Eaton said, rankings can oversimplify. Notably, she said, the Education Week studies don’t adjust test results that figure into its grades to account for demographic differences. Once that’s done on results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Eaton noted, Texas surges close to having the nation’s best student performance results, according to research by the Urban Institute focused on 2013 and 2015 NAEP scores.
White has said Texas schools rank “43rd in the nation.”
In fact, Texas schools ranked 40th among the states heading into 2017, according to the latest Education Week rankings that were public before White spoke.
We rate his statement Mostly True.