How to raise a school’s failing grade: Get students to say they’ll sign up with Uncle Sam

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A dozen Texas school districts are under state investigation after reporting high numbers of graduates intending to enlist in the military, a statistic that can help boost the ratings of otherwise ailing schools that are trying to avoid state penalties or additional scrutiny.

Under state law, the number of students intending to enlist is among the factors used to determine a district’s accountability rating with the state. High enlistment numbers can help, offsetting other weaknesses, including low test scores. The state grades districts on an A to F scale, with lower-performing schools becoming subject to state takeover or other actions.

Deciding school rankings partly on the basis of how many students take the military aptitude test opens the door for lower-performing districts to ignore or downplay what many educators consider more important indicators, like test scores and graduation rates.

The test is a national assessment given to individuals to gauge their fitness for enlisting in the military. It is available in thousands of schools nationally as part of vocational testing.

The Houston Chronicle in August reported that several Texas districts boosted their accountability ratings by one or two letter grades using the military test-taking numbers.

Topping the list of those schools citing military enlistment “intent” among its students is George Gervin Academy in San Antonio, which claimed in state filings that all 36 of its 2018 graduates had enlisted or intended to enlist.

The founder of the school, state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, told the San Antonio Express-News that the figures for the charter school are solid. The newspaper said the Gervin schools received an A grade from the TEA for the last two years, “partly on the strength of a high ranking in college and career readiness driven mainly by the military metric.”

“We normally, because of the student population we serve, we promote the military because a lot of them don’t have the financial resources or family support to go directly into college,” Gervin-Hawkins told the newspaper. “So we believe the military is an avenue — it provides the discipline, the support and the financial resources.” 

The Texas Education Agency includes the fact that students have taken the test in its school grading system. But it lacks any way to verify whether the test-taking leads to enlistment. A TEA report notes that, “For reasons of national security and privacy, the [defense] department is unable to share post-enlistment data with TEA or districts.”

The education agency, though, is seeking to fix that.

“The TEA is actively working to improve its data collection process and is currently engaged in the development of a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense in order to obtain enlistment data directly from the DoD,” TEA spokesman Jacob Kobersky said in an email. “The Agency anticipates receiving the initial dataset in the first half of 2020.” 

The rules posted on the Texas Education Agency’s website clearly state that a district cannot count a student as “intending to enlist” solely because the student took the military suitability test.  It can, however, use that as part of the documentation to show the student’s intent.

Texas school districts are legally required to offer the test – called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery because of legislation passed in 2017, authored by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. Military enlistments were considered as part of a school or district’s grade for the first time that year.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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