Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bills would reshape Texas' school accountability system

By TERRENCE STUTZ and ROBERT T. GARRETT/ The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

AUSTIN – Texas schools would be graded with new standards – highlighting an emphasis on college readiness in high schools – while student testing would lose much of its punch in lower grades under school improvement bills the Legislature passed Wednesday.

Similar bills approved by the House and Senate would call on high school students to show college readiness on the state's new English III and Algebra II tests to earn a diploma – with the Senate proposing a higher standard for passage than the House.

But elementary and middle school students would no longer have to pass the TAKS test in certain grades to be promoted under both measures.

The bills would take some pressure off teachers and administrators to focus on preparation for state tests by allowing school districts to devise their own promotion standards – utilizing test scores, course grades and teacher recommendations. Students in grades 3, 5 and 8 would no longer have to pass the state test for promotion.

In addition, annual state performance ratings for schools and districts would be revamped, with growth in student achievement – as measured by state tests – the key factor rather than just minimum passing rates of students.

Test scores over three years – rather than just one year – would be considered in performance ratings so a district or campus would not be penalized for one off-year. Student dropout rates and each district's financial condition would be other factors in the ratings.

The Senate approved its school accountability bill first, on a unanimous vote, while the House followed suit Wednesday evening by unanimously approving its bill. The two chambers will iron out their differences on the legislation over the next few weeks.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, told House members that the new school accountability system was necessary because the old standards have not been getting results.

"The current system did not help our kids as much as we thought it would," Eissler explained. "We have serious, serious achievement gaps in terms of preparing students for college."

Eissler said while scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills jumped substantially over the years, Texas scores on the ACT and SAT – the nation's two major college entrance exams – have remained flat.

"What we want to do now is aim at college readiness because 86 percent of new jobs in the future will require at least some coursework in college," he said.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said for the first time college readiness will be a major part of the school accountability system.

"This bill would make significant changes for students and for schools, but the overarching goal is to raise the bar so that Texas students are prepared for success in life," she said.

Regarding provisions in the bill that would affect low-performing schools, Shapiro said the state education commissioner would have more flexibility to deal with those campuses – including an additional year for such schools to turn around their performance before facing closure.

"Our goal is to do improvement, not punishment – standards, not excuses," she said.

Other provisions in one or both of the bills would eliminate the requirement that school districts spend at least 65 percent of their funds on classroom instruction and prohibit districts from having grading policies that force teachers to give minimum grades to failing students.

An amendment approved in the House would prohibit school districts from regulating the hair length of honor students who have no disciplinary record or unexcused absences.

School districts would be evaluated annually based on student test scores, dropout rates and financial integrity – receiving one of three ratings from good to bad: accredited, accredited-warned and accredited-probation. Districts doing poorly for multiple years would lose their accreditation – and state funding.

Campuses would be rated acceptable or low-performing based on test scores and dropout rates, with high-performing campuses getting recognized for "distinction" in subject areas where they excelled.

High school students would follow one of three graduation plans – basic, recommended and advanced – with most students encouraged to the take the recommended plan to prepare for college. Students in that plan would have to have four credits in each of the four core subject areas – English, math, science and social studies. A credit is equal to a year of instruction in one course.

Two credits in foreign language also would be required along with eight elective credits under the recommended plan.

Students would only be allowed to take the "basic" graduation plan – which has less-rigorous course requirements – with the consent of their parents. Schools that have a large number of students graduating under the basic plan would face an inquiry from the Texas Education Agency under both the House and Senate bills.

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