Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tougher ratings take toll on many schools

39 in HISD fail to meet standard, but the district overall is still rated 'acceptable'
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Texas school leaders blame tougher test standards and shrinking budgets for causing many suburban school districts to lose their elite status with the latest accountability ratings released Monday.

School ratings were down across the state using this year's tougher passing standards on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam.

The ratings are based on TAKS scores, middle school dropout rates and four-year high school graduation rates.

Weak math and science scores and lack of improvement among special education students caused many of the schools to drop off the state's acceptable list.

In 2004, only 95 of the state's 7,908 schools received the lowest ratings. This year, that number nearly quadrupled to 364, or nearly 5 percent. And the number of regular school districts rated unacceptable now stands at 19, compared with four a year ago.

The number of Houston Independent School District campuses failing to meet minimal state standards nearly tripled to 39 this year. Still, HISD managed to hang onto its acceptable rating.

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said the results were "mixed but not unexpected."

"One of the great benefits of the Texas accountability system — bottom line — is that it shines a public light on areas in which districts and schools need to work harder," she said.

Suburban school districts that had grown used to wearing the more respectable recognized rating, including Cypress-Fairbanks and Clear Creek, now find themselves among the overwhelming majority of Texas districts with the lesser acceptable label.

Funding squeeze blamed
Administrators in Cy-Fair and elsewhere blamed their struggles on declining state funding that has forced them to freeze positions and increase class sizes at a time when enrollment is growing.

"We've maintained the status quo in many, many areas," said Cy-Fair spokeswoman Kelli Durham.

More than half of the schools in the acceptable-rated Katy ISD earned recognized or exemplary ratings. Schools in Humble posted similar results, but that district sank to the unacceptable level because of a high dropout rate among middle schoolers. Galveston and Beaumont also got branded with the lowest possible rating.

Districts have until Aug. 19 to appeal their ratings and many, including Humble, plan to do so.

Humble administrators blamed their poor rating on an accidental overcount of dropouts.

"We have to do literally everything humanly possible to attempt to find out where the no-show students are," Superintendent Guy Sconzo said. "The thing that is frustrating is ... the label of academically unacceptable. I know that from the standpoint of student achievement, we're much better than academically unacceptable."

In Houston, unacceptable schools now account for 14 percent of the 281 rated campuses, up from 5 percent in 2004. And for the first time since 1995, the number of unacceptable HISD schools is higher than the combined number of exemplary and recognized campuses.

The percentage of unacceptable schools in HISD is higher than any other urban Texas school district. Dallas is the second-highest with 9 percent unacceptable, but nearly a quarter of that city's schools earned recognized or exemplary ratings.

"Our districtwide rating held steady," HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said in a written statement. "But overall, these results are not good enough, and everyone knows it. This should be a loud and clear signal that we must do better."

The news was better at Yates High School, which managed to get off the unacceptable list for the first time in recent years. Yates is among three HISD high schools undergoing a dramatic overhaul of its teaching staff this summer in a plan to improve the schools.

The acceptable rating proves the major changes at Yates were unnecessary, said Bill Miller, president of the Yates Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

"We knew Yates was not an unacceptable school," he said.

Principal George August said he still believes the staff overhaul was necessary to continue improving the school.

"There were some people who had become complacent and who had been reluctant to really give their best. There were some excellent teachers and we retained them," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

Charter schools also took a big hit in this year's accountability ratings.

Forty-two charter holders, or about 17 percent of schools, had unacceptable ratings, making them four times as likely as a traditional campus to be labeled with the state's lowest rating.

Public perception at risk
"We hope that this does not influence the public perception of charters," said Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools in San Antonio.

"Charters serve a higher percent of low income, minority, at-risk students, therefore, we expected that their TAKS passing rate would not equal the TAKS passing rate of traditional schools across the state."

Most Texas districts and campuses were rated acceptable. That meant their students had passing rates for each racial and economic group of at least 50 percent on reading/English language arts, writing and social studies; 35 percent on math; and 25 percent on science.

Those schools and districts also had to achieve passing rates of 50 percent on the alternative assessment for students with disabilities. High schools and districts needed completion rates of 75 percent or more, or an annual dropout rate of 1 percent or less.

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