By HOLLY K. HACKER and JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, July 5, 2009
When the state announces school ratings this month, hundreds of schools are expected to claim higher marks – and part of the credit goes to new state rules that count some students as passing the TAKS test when they actually failed.
The state created school accountability ratings in 1993 to help parents gauge the successes and shortfalls of individual schools. But over the years, the state has made so many changes that it is a test in itself to figure out if a school is doing better, doing worse or holding even.
A new adjustment kicks in this year: the Texas Projection Measure. It allows schools to count students who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills as passing, as long as a complex formula shows that those kids are predicted to pass in a future year.
So many schools are likely to benefit from this latest academic "get out of jail free" card that it raises the question: At what point do the ratings become meaningless?
"We know that when the rules change every year and there are exemptions on top of conditions on top of projections, that really begins to water down the meaning of any of these labels," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for poor and minority students. Hall served on a federal panel that reviewed Texas' new model.
Here's how the new projection measure works:
Say a seventh-grader failed the math TAKS. The Texas Education Agency developed a statistical formula that predicts whether that student will pass the math test in eighth grade. The formula considers the student's math and reading TAKS scores, plus the average math TAKS score at his school.
If the student is predicted to pass, the school gets to count him as actually passing – even though he really failed.
School ratings are based on the test scores of all students, plus the performance of certain groups of students, including those who are black, Hispanic or poor. If just one group falls short academically, the whole school's rating can suffer.
An evolving tool
The projection formula was originally developed for the federal accountability system, called No Child Left Behind. Schools must show students are making "adequate yearly progress" as measured on standardized tests.
TEA officials note that a national panel of testing experts approved the model. They say it is not a perfect predictor but very accurate.
"We're looking for a way to recognize those schools where they've done a phenomenal job of increasing student performance, but they just haven't quite gotten every student over that last bar," said Criss Cloudt, a TEA associate commissioner.
But Hall, speaking for Education Trust, said one problem with Texas' model is that it gives schools credit based on future performance and doesn't go back and compare that to actual performance.
Case in point: A sixth- or seventh-grader who fails the TAKS could be projected to pass in eighth grade. The school receives credit for that. But suppose the student reaches eighth grade and does not pass as predicted. The school is not penalized. Instead, the Texas model looks ahead again – this time, determining whether the eighth-grader will pass the 11th-grade TAKS.
"From a school perspective, a student never has to actually be proficient. It's always projected into future grades," she said.
TEA officials say they will review the new model to see if students who were expected to pass did, in fact, pass.
"We see this very much as an evolving measurement tool," Cloudt said.
Local schools to benefit
Many North Texas schools expect higher ratings because of the new projection measure. But many other schools will show genuine student improvement, without the help of loopholes or fine print.
•Richardson ISD expects 16 of its 53 schools to benefit from the new projection measure.
•Dallas ISD expects 71 of its more than 200 campuses to benefit.
•Irving ISD expects two of its 20 elementary schools to jump from acceptable to exemplary, and a third campus to move up from recognized to exemplary. Irving hasn't had an exemplary campus in years.
•Of the 34 schools in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, officials estimate that 17 will have higher ratings than last year. Nine of those schools will be aided by the new projection measure.
Cecilia Oakeley, Dallas ISD's evaluation and accountability director, said the new rule is fair to districts that serve students who struggle with poverty or language barriers.
"We're giving credit to students who are showing some growth but have not quite made the standard," she said. "They're on that trajectory."
That's the whole reason for using the model, TEA officials said. They also note that other changes in policy have made ratings harder on schools. For instance, the state has gradually phased in a stricter definition of dropouts that, for the first time this year, could lower some ratings.
Texas reports the percentage of students scoring at the higher "commended" level on the TAKS, but those rates do not affect the bottom-line school rating. The growth model changes also won't affect those rates, which can be useful for parents to see how many students at a given school are surpassing the basic passing standard.
State education officials say that school rating reports will make it clear what the pure TAKS passing rates are, compared to those boosted by the new projection model.
Changes not over yet
Major changes to the state's accountability system will continue, as the Legislature voted this spring to create a new rating system for 2013. Details are being worked out, but the new system won't rely so much on TAKS passing rates. Other measures, such as college readiness, will be included.
But it's unlikely the core of the debate will change: Ongoing tensions will remain between fairness and transparency, between stability and sophistication.
The TEA's Cloudt said there's a difficult balancing act: making the system understandable while recognizing that not all students come to school equally prepared.
While the promise was for clarity, the current system is based on formulas that few understand.
"It's so complex that very often parents are not fully informed on exactly what an individual rating means," said David Simmons, Richardson school superintendent.
But he said that confusion may be unavoidable.
"Any state-mandated, state-created accountability system is going to struggle to capture how individual campuses and districts perform on multiple measures," he said. "That may, to a great extent, be unattainable."
Donna Kent will be PTA president for the second straight year at Lake Highlands High School, which preliminary test scores indicate will need several exemptions to be ranked as recognized. Last year, the school was rated as academically acceptable.
She readily admitted that she was unaware of the various formulas behind the ratings, but said that the details were less important than the idea that her school was improving. She said the broad labels mean less than the information TAKS data provides, which helps schools target groups and students who need help in certain areas.
She said the situation is a lot like the Bowl Championship Series, used to select the top college football team. People complain about that system, too.
"We know we're going to have something, and we need to learn what we have and how to deal with it."
Staff writer Matt Peterson contributed to this report.