By ERICKA MELLON HOUSTON CHRONICLE
June 2, 2009
More than 70 percent of campuses in the Houston school district are expected to earn the state’s top two academic ratings this year thanks to higher test scores and a more forgiving Texas accountability system.
HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra predicted Tuesday that roughly 200 of the district’s 275 schools will earn a coveted “exemplary” or “recognized” rating. That’s up from 157 last year. Student test scores in HISD rose this year in nearly every grade level and subject.
The Texas Education Agency won’t release the official 2009 ratings until July 31, but more schools across the state are expected to earn top marks. That’s in part because the TEA changed its rating system this year to give schools credit for students who failed state exams — if they are on pace to pass in coming years.
For example, a middle school would not be penalized for a sixth-grader who failed the reading test if that student is projected, based on a statistical formula, to pass the eighth-grade reading exam in two years.
Texas not alone
Supporters of this new system, called the Texas Projection Measure, say it gives schools credit for making progress with students who are behind academically, but others argue the state is giving districts a free pass and is lowering standards.
Texas is not alone in its new approach.
The U.S. Department of Education recently started allowing some states to count student improvement in the federal No Child Left Behind ratings.
“Students come to school with varying levels of preparation,” said Criss Cloudt, the TEA associate commissioner over testing. “It’s important to recognize where school districts have made significant differences in the performance of students, but they haven’t quite gotten them over that last hurdle.”
As in past years, Texas schools will get one of four ratings — unacceptable, acceptable, recognized or exemplary.
School districts don’t have to announce to parents if a campus earns a higher rating because of the new state rules, but the data will be posted on the TEA’s public Web site.
Test scores rose
Houston school board President Larry Marshall said he worries parents will see the new rules as a trend toward lowering standards. The TEA already cuts schools other breaks in the rating system, such as boosting a school’s rating if it made significant improvement since last year.
“I would just be an advocate for kids meeting the standards,” he said. “If parents perceive it as a watering down of standards, I don’t think it’s going to make the school systems very attractive.”
Saavedra acknowledged that some HISD schools will benefit from the new rating system, but he emphasized that test scores rose significantly in the district on their own.
The persistent gap between white and minority students also is continuing to close.
For example, the percentage of Hispanic 11th-graders who passed all the state tests this year grew to 69 percent, from 65 percent in 2008 and 55 percent two years ago.
The passing rate for Anglos in 11th grade was 90 percent this year, dropping one point from last year.
“This gap has been closing,” Saavedra said, “and I do think it will eventually close if we can continue in the same direction of paying attention to the growth of every child.”
More students in HISD also reached the “commended” level on the TAKS, which means they answered most of the questions correctly and didn’t just barely pass the minimum-skills exams.
Mike Walker, principal of HISD’s Fondren Elementary, said he expects his school to shed its unacceptable rating this year, even without the flexibility from the state.
To boost scores, he said, teachers gave students common practice tests more often and met with the children and their parents about the results.
“Our focus was you teach it, then you test it,” he said.
Austin attorney Sandy Kress, an education adviser to former President George W. Bush, said the success of the state’s new rating system will depend on whether students who failed state tests end up passing them in a couple of years, as projected.