By Lindsay Kastner | Express-News
Several area school districts expect good news when the state releases its preliminary accountability ratings this month, but whether those good ratings are the result of actual student performance has become the subject of much debate.
Richard Middleton, superintendent of North East Independent School District, said he has concerns about the use of the Texas Projection Measure, which helps many schools and districts boost their ratings by giving them credit for students who did not pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills but who appear to be on track to pass in the future.
“I want to see our students improve, but I also want to have a credible assessment system that people believe in and understand,” Middleton said.
The TPM was approved for use as a growth measure, meaning it is intended to give credit for a student's progress over time. But it has come under fire since state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, chairman of the House Appropriation Committee's education subcommittee, recently called into question the use of a formula that projects future success rather than taking into account past improvement.
“The accuracy of the TPM varies according to where you look but in some cases is not very accurate at all,” said Hochberg, who said he began looking into the system after realizing that a school hailed as a turnaround relied on the model.
Locally and across the state, schools and districts have benefited significantly from the TPM, which was put in place last year.
The number of Bexar County schools that achieved the state's highest rating, exemplary, more than doubled in 2009 over the previous year. But 63 percent of the exemplary schools would not have achieved that rank without the TPM, according to a San Antonio Express-News analysis.
It also helped about 10 percent of Bexar County schools avoid a failing rating from the state.
Projection models are generally considered accurate, said Pete Goldschmidt, a senior researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
“Where they're less accurate are for those kids for whom you want them to the most accurate,” he said, noting that poor performers can trip up the models.
In a recent letter to districts' administrators, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott wrote that he is considering changes to the use of the TPM next year, including modifying or suspending its use “to ensure that student performance is acknowledged and to ensure that the state accountability system remains transparent.”
Hochberg said those options aren't good enough.
“I don't think you design an accountably measure by throwing out a half a dozen options and saying, ‘Gee, which one sounds best to you,'” he said. “This is a difficult problem, and it will take difficult work to figure out.”
Students also had to correctly answer fewer questions on most tests to earn a passing score this year. Last year, for instance, students had to correctly answer 58 percent of the questions to pass the 10th-grade social studies test. This year, that threshold dropped to 50 percent.
“That's probably a little bit larger that we would normally expect, but is it completely out of range? No,” researcher Goldschmidt said.
State officials say test questions were harder this year, which accounts for the reduction in the number of questions students must correctly answer.
“Every year, we have to ensure that the overall difficulty level of the test is the same,” said Gloria Zyskowski, deputy associate commissioner of the Texas Education Agency.
At San Antonio ISD, where preliminary passing rates increased significantly, Deputy Superintendent Betty Burks credits a strong math curriculum and more time spent in science labs.
Zyskowski attributed this year's rating gains in part to legislation that requires students to pass their tests at certain grades before they can move on.
“They had a little more reading and math instruction because they were required to pass those tests to be promoted,” she said.