New standards have parents scratching heads
By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
July 30, 2011
The number of academically unacceptable public schools in Texas increased more than fivefold this year after the state raised standards, leaving parents with a confusing picture of districts' progress.
Houston-area schools saw a similar shake-up in their accountability ratings, which the state released Friday. Fewer campuses earned the highest honors, and more landed on the troubled list.
The ratings plunge is largely due to the state no longer using a statistical measure that gave credit for failing test scores if the students were on track to pass in coming years.
"It's very important for parents to remember that the standards substantially increased this year," said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
In the Houston Independent School District, the "unacceptable" campuses more than tripled to 25 — or 9 percent of its rated schools.
Statewide, about 7 percent of schools netted the lowest rating this year. The unacceptable list grew from 104 schools to 569.
Four of the nine schools in HISD's Apollo reform program were "unacceptable" despite millions of extra dollars spent on improvement. HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said the turnaround effort is a three-year initiative, and Apollo is entering its second year.
Kashmere and Jones high schools and Attucks and Ryan middle schools were the low performers among the Apollo campuses. Kashmere has been rated unacceptable for three straight years. Lee and Sharpstown high schools and Key Middle School came off the state's worst list, moving from unacceptable to acceptable.
Schools and districts with the lowest standing face sanctions from the TEA such as appointed monitors and mandatory staff overhauls.
The ratings, from best to worst, are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, honored last year as the state's largest "recognized" district, dropped to "acceptable." HISD, the biggest district, also was "acceptable."
Among the area's other large districts, Katy, Pasadena, Conroe, Alief, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Galena Park and Pearland earned "recognized" status.
"This is a significant accomplishment for our district considering we achieved it under much stricter and higher accountability standards," said Alief Superintendent H.D. Chambers, who took the helm of the district in April.
The ratings are based mostly on how well students perform on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Schools must hit targets for all students and for different racial and socioeconomic groups. Schools' graduation and dropout rates also count.
Changes to the accountability system, in addition to the end of the so-called Texas Projection Measure, made it harder for districts to meet the standards.
All the test scores of special-education students were counted for the first time. Schools also had to ensure that at least 60 percent of their students with limited English skills passed the state exams to earn the two highest ratings. And the passing standards on the math and science tests — traditionally the hardest for students — increased by five percentage points.
This is the last year for the TAKS testing program, which began in 2003. Schools will get a one-year reprieve from ratings as students take the new exams, expected to be more challenging.
Test scores traditionally rise over the years as teachers and students get used to the format of an exam. Statewide, at least 90 percent of students passed the TAKS in reading, writing and social studies this year. At least 80 percent passed in math and science.
HISD saw its scores remain mostly flat this year. The district's passing rate in math rose two points to 83 percent, while writing dropped two points to 91 percent.
"Schools have a pretty good routine based on the TAKS," said state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who chairs the House Public Education Committee. "It will change when we get to the (new) end-of-course exams and the STAAR tests."
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness will replace the TAKS.
Friendswood ISD was the only traditional school district in the greater Houston area to earn the state's highest rating of "exemplary." The charter schools YES Prep, Harmony School of Science, Harmony School of Excellence and Houston Heights Learning Academy also earned the top status.
Statewide, 14.5 percent of charter schools were dubbed "unacceptable," compared with 6 percent of traditional campuses. Charter schools are public schools with certain freedoms from state law.
KIPP, one of Houston's most popular charter school networks, had its first "unacceptable" campus. Three schools earned the highest rating, and the other 14 were split between "recognized" and "acceptable."
Mike Feinberg, KIPP's co-founder, said he was not surprised that KIPP's Sunnyside High School rated low because it opened in 2010 with 120 ninth-graders. He said it takes time to catch up the students.
"If this was a full-sized high school, I would be in the hospital right now having a stroke," he said. "But it's the first year out of the gate."
Three area districts — Hitchcock, La Marque and North Forest — were rated "unacceptable" overall. The TEA is planning to close North Forest ISD in 2012 after its streak of poor academic and financial marks.