Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams (Patrick Michels)

Researchers: “Triple Segregation” More Likely in Low-Scoring Texas Schools


Kids who speak little or no English represent a fast-growing share of Texas’ public school students, and the schools they attend are increasingly segregated.

According to a study publicized last week by the University of Texas at Austin, the makeup of Texas’ schools tends to compound the challenges those students face, finding “high levels of segregation in schools by race, poverty, and language status.”

UT education professors Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Holme analyzed Texas Education Agency data and found this “triple segregation” is a significant indicator of how schools performed in the state accountability ratings. Their research revealed that schools segregated by race, language and degree of poverty were overwhelmingly rated as low-performing.

“There’s this big question among school performance which is, does demography determine destiny?” Heilig told the Observer. “We wanted to ask, ‘Has accountability worked, has it delivered those promises?’ What we found was the situation is still the same as it was 20 years ago.” (Heilig wrote more about the study on his blog.)

The population of students known as English language learners, or ELLs, has nearly doubled over the past 25 years, according to their report, and the trend is expected to continue. The researchers found that the majority of ELL students in Texas are in high poverty, high minority schools rated by the state as low-performing.

According to TEA data, 46 percent of urban schools are designated as “intensely segregated,” meaning 90 percent or more of the students are African American or Latino combined. Of schools where the “vast majority” of the students are economically disadvantaged, two-thirds are majority ELL. In triple-segregated schools, 48 percent were less likely to be rated “exemplary” on the state accountability system.

Some policies meant to improve students’ language skills have actually led to increased isolation for English language learners. Schools that pull limited-English students out of regular classes for special programs, end up reducing those students’ exposure to native speakers.

Heilig said the causes of triple segregation need further examination. He said he hopes the study will encourage other researchers to launch their own studies, and inspire policies that consider more than test scores and accountability ratings.

“If we wonder why Texas has barely moved the needle over the last decade in terms of our educational success, it’s because we’re focusing on all the wrong things,” he said.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has said he’s focused on closing the “achievement gap” between white students and Hispanic and African-American students. This year, Texas launched a new school accountability system that rewards schools for improved test scores over previous years.

But Heilig says Texas schools face challenges that can’t be fixed with a new accountability system based on test scores.

“To ensure the vibrancy of our democracy, we have to ensure that all kids are educated, and we cannot continue to ignore certain kids and pretend like we’re paying attention to them by giving them test after test every year,” he said. “Tests do not create equity and accountability.”