Katrina Students Struggle with Texas School Tests

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Many Katrina-evacuee students in Houston are failing the Texas competency tests. Two-thirds of the evacuees in school failed the state math achievement test. They face being held back a grade, or going to summer school. The school system is getting about $16 million to pay for educating the Katrina evacuees. But that doesn't cover summer school costs. Capella Tucker of Houston Public Radio reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Schools in Texas that enrolled Katrina evacuees are facing a summer of challenges. A high percentage of those students are failing the state's standardized test. For some, that means they will be held back unless they can catch up in summer school.

Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports.

CAPELLA TUCKER reporting:

About 5,500 evacuees are enrolled in the Houston School District. For them, it's meant a new curriculum and new standards. It's also meant new and tougher accountability tests.

Houston School District Chief Academic Officer Karen Soehnge says the results have not been good.

Ms. KAREN SOEHNGE (Chief Academic Officer, Houston School District): The results are quite astounding. They range from anywhere from seven percent to an overall average, both the third and the fifth grade, of about 30 percentage points in difference, which we believe is significant.

Ms. TUCKER: Students in certain grade levels are required to pass the state's standardized tests to be promoted. On the math exam, 33 percent of evacuees passed. In comparison, more than twice as many Houston students passed.

Test results in other subjects, such as reading, were similar. The poor scores were not unexpected. Soehnge says it'll help schools identify which students need extra help.

Ms. SOEHNGE: We believe that any kind of data, particularly the state data, that we can use to monitor, measure and diagnose student learning needs, you know, that's advantageous to us as a system.

Ms. TUCKER: But it costs money to bring the students up to Texas standards. The federal government has promised $16 million to help pay for educating the Katrina evacuees. The district is just now starting to get that money.

But Houston School Superintendent Abe Saavedra says it won't even cover the cost of the evacuees during the past school year.

Mr. ABELARDO SAAVEDRA (Houston School Superintendent): We will receive approximately $4,000 per student. It takes approximately $6,000-plus to educate every student. So you know, we're not getting full funding, but two-thirds funding sure helps over no funding at all.

Ms. TUCKER: Saavedra says the money doesn't cover additional services such as summer school. For example, at Revere Middle School(ph) on Houston's West Side, all 180 evacuees are being encouraged to attend summer school. Principal Ken Estrella says it'll cost about $100,000, but he points out one program may not be enough to get the evacuees caught up.

Mr. KEN ESTRELLA (School Principal): Are we realistically going to be able to get them to where they're reading at grade level by next year? Probably not. But we're going to give it our best shot and if we just keep them in these intense programs and tutorial programs and keep them, you know, coming in to summer programs, get them ready for high school.

Ms. TUCKER: The poor test results showed the difference between the two school systems. Ed Dommett taught in New Orleans for 30 years. He's rebuilding his life in Houston and is now teaching at Revere. He says the Texas and Louisiana kids are not different, but...

Mr. ED DOMMETT (Teacher): They were exposed to a school system that was toxic, in a lot of ways. If you would read our curriculum back home, if you would read our discipline rules, it's more rigorous and stricter than it is here. It's just that it wasn't followed ever.

Ms. TUCKER: Dommett knows the job is difficult, but he says the Houston school system is doing the best it can for the evacuees.

Mr. DOMMETT: Here, people are really trying. People are working together. And that's what makes the difference here.

Ms. TUCKER: Superintendent Saavedra says it costs money, and he hopes the federal government realizes Most of the evacuees are not returning to New Orleans anytime soon.

Mr. SAAVEDRA: Most of these students will come back to us next year. They remain in need of special services. We will need to have additional funding so we can provide the students the adequate resources.

Ms. TUCKER: Houston, and other school districts with evacuees, are lobbying congressional leaders for additional federal funding. They'll keep track of how many evacuees are staying in Houston and hope the dollars will come in to support their education.

For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker, in Houston.

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