Monday, December 13, 2010

New Texas school data may not give a clear picture

A critique of the next wave of fiscal accountability. Will be a big issue this coming session. You can access information on the Comptroller's FAST study and information from an earlier post to this blog here: Texas Lawmakers look to cut Tx Education Budget.


Texas public school districts surely must spend their money smarter. But you can't buy student achievement at Walmart.

A new report that rates schools based on an assessment of per-pupil spending emphasizes ways to cut costs but doesn't give a complete picture either of academic progress or bang for the buck.

The Legislature directed the state comptroller to identify districts that are educating kids efficiently and to pinpoint potential areas of improvement. And that's what the Financial Allocation Study for Texas, or FAST, attempts to do.

The report says that "the existing data are informative, but lack the nuance needed" to "identify efficient school expenditure practices that advance student achievement."

The comptroller's team evaluated the state's more than 1,200 districts and charter schools on how much their students progressed in 2007-09 on state reading and math tests. The team also examined the districts' spending for instruction and operations, then put all the data through a formula to come up with an efficiency rating.

The Keller school district got a 5 (the highest); Arlington a 3 and Fort Worth a 1.5.

The report's conclusions about Fort Worth's academic progress are inconsistent with what the district's own analyses show based on results on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills: that scores are going up each year in most categories and achievement gaps are closing, though some student groups still have far to go, particularly African-American middle and high schoolers in math.

And the financial comparison model might yield misleading results.

To measure costs, the report team divided districts into groups of financial peers that "operate in a similar cost environment, are of similar size and serve similar students."

Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston thus were in a peer group -- but they also were lumped with far more homogeneous and upscale districts like Plano, Lewisville, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks and Round Rock. The urban districts almost certainly have higher costs because of the needs of the populations they serve.

Hank Johnson, Fort Worth's chief financial officer, said that during the years analyzed, Fort Worth spent millions to adopt a new information system to manage data about students and business operations; install cabling and fiber optics; realign the curriculum; and develop new internal tests to measure student progress.

Those one-time investments were meant to help the district improve student achievement. But only an assessment of future data will show whether they've had that effect.

Texas public schools spent an average of $11,567 per student in 2008-09, the report says.

The number skews high because of the per-pupil costs in some of the smallest and far-flung rural districts, such as San Vicente ($33,678 per each of 33 students) and Marathon ($32,430 per 47 students), both in Brewster County, and Guthrie ($33,291 per 95 students) in Comanche County.

Fort Worth's per-pupil cost is $7,712 for 79,114 students, according to the report. Arlington's is $6,884 for 62,953, and Keller's is $6,204 for 30,173.

The report includes examples of ways districts have saved money but fails to connect any of the methods to improving achievement.

It also veers into making recommendations that have political implications or would cost jobs.

The top recommendation is to make the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten to fourth grade an average, not a limit. The report also suggests basing teacher salaries on performance, not experience or degrees, and requiring that publishers provide textbooks in e-reader versions.

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