Although Laura Bush's speech at the GOP convention dealt more with daughters and dolls than politics, Mrs. Bush did make a foray into policy to trumpet her husband's record on education. "The highly respected nonpartisan RAND study released just last week found that education reforms in Texas have resulted in some of the highest achievement gains in the country among all racial, socioeconomic, and family backgrounds," she told the crowd in Philadelphia. "It happened because George led the way, focusing ... schools' attention on reading." Suddenly, the RAND study was everywhere, touted on the Bush campaign Web site, in press releases, and by Newt Gingrich on ABC's This Week.
The RAND study--authored by researcher David Grissmer and based on National Assessment of Education Practices (NAEP) tests administered in 44 states between 1990 and 1996--does report that Texas is a leading state, both in terms of raw scores and score improvement rates. Most notably, when comparing students with similar family backgrounds in Texas and California (states with similar demographics), Grissmer found that Texans scored 11 percentile points higher than Californians.
This is certainly an impressive achievement--it's just not Bush's impressive achievement. By the time Bush took office in 1995, three of the four NAEP tests on which the RAND study is based had already been administered. Furthermore, according to Grissmer himself, the education reforms that shaped the NAEP data were enacted "at least 10 years ago." His study relays a similar message: "State achievement results reflect the policies and practices over at least the past 10 to 15 years ... but current policy makers are likely to receive the credit." And though Mrs. Bush tried to credit her husband's reading initiatives for the improved test scores, the RAND study is based solely on the math scores of students tested.
So who does get credit for the gains identified in Texas? The actual reforms date to 1984, when Ross Perot headed a committee of reformers that developed the business leadership, accountability systems, and pre-kindergarten programs that Grissmer cites as central to Texas's achievement. And it was the business community that provided the "political muscle," as Grissmer puts it, to pass education reform legislation in Texas.
To be fair, Bush deserves some credit for not dismantling--and even building on--a system that purportedly works. But a more comprehensive critique is on its way. A study due out in September, authored by Boston College professor Walter Haney, suggests that only 60-65 percent of minority students in Texas make it from sixth grade to graduation. Haney also asserts that the drop-out rate for all students in Texas is 30 percent--more than twice the national average.
The study also questions whether the higher academic achievement explains the shrinking racial gap on 10th-grade scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). Haney finds that "one clear cause for the decrease in the racial gap in grade 10 test scores in the 1990s is that black and Hispanic students are being increasingly retained in grade 9 before they take the grade 10 TAAS test." In fact, argues Haney, by the late 1990s, 25-30 percent of black and Hispanic students repeated grade 9, while only 10 percent of white students did.
Perhaps more damaging for Bush, the study faults the TAAS itself as contributing to the higher drop-out rate; the test, Haney explains, actually "encourag[es] schools to get rid of low-achieving students." Is this really the best model for improving schools and educational systems across the country? After all, says Haney, "Who gives a damn about a slight increase in test scores when one-third of the kids don't make it to high school graduation?"