Monday, August 27, 2007

Hard to tell who's being left behind

Sunday, August 26, 2007

When Texas students go back to class this week, there is likely to be confusion about the quality of their schools because of recent state and federal report cards grading those schools.

In Conroe, students who attend Oak Ridge Elementary are in an exemplary school, according to the state. But look at the federal No Child Left Behind report card and the school gets a failing grade. Austin students have a similar dilemma.

They'll be attending schools, such as Austin High, the alma mater of President Bush's twin daughters, that consistently make a passing grade or better on the state report card. But this year, the high school made a failing grade on the federal No Child Left Behind report card.

If we are to believe the federal government's evaluation, nine of 13 Austin high schools are failing, including McCallum with its acclaimed Fine Arts Academy. But on the state report card, just three high schools failed (Reagan, Travis and Johnston). Which should we believe?

The confusion is a product of systems that don't match up. The No Child Left Behind law and Texas' accountability system grade public schools, but they use different criteria. Both are mandated by law and both are released in the same month — August. It's not uncommon for schools to be rated exemplary or acceptable by the state, the equivalent of an A or C, but at the same time those schools might not meet federal standards, the equivalent of an F.

This is no way to run grading systems. Instead of providing parents, educators and taxpayers credible information about their schools, the conflicting report cards released within weeks of each other generate confusion and doubts just days before school begins. Parents then have to make hasty decisions about whether to transfer their children or let them stay put. In Austin, 10 schools must offer parents transfers to schools of their choice because they failed the federal standards.

Though the two systems are based on the state's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams, they use different passing standards. What is considered passing on the state system might not be high enough on the federal system. That makes the federal system superior, right? Not when you consider that the state system assesses students on more subjects, including social studies and science, which are not included in the federal system.

The two systems create more confusion by treating special education students and kids who speak limited English differently. And while the state system evaluates three grades of high school, including 11th-graders, the No Child Left Behind law uses only 10th-graders' scores to grade high schools.

We've repeatedly called for an overhaul of the state's testing system that has become so rigid and burdensome over the years that, among other things, it unfairly penalizes schools that educate low-performing students.

We applaud the Legislature for mandating a comprehensive review of the state accountability system. Those findings are due by December 2008. That review also should be used to study how to merge the state and federal accountability systems. It should not be that a school can pass on one report card and flunk on another. Our schools deserve a reliable report card that awards ratings we can trust.

Failed federal standards

Ten Austin district schools got a passing grade on the state report card, but received a failing grade on the federal No Child Left Behind report card. Both report cards were released in August.

High schools: Akins, Austin, Crockett, International High, Lanier and McCallum,

Middle schools:
Bedichek, Dobie and Porter

Elementary school: Jordan

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