Wednesday, September 12, 2007

State's exemplary schools not judged on all criteria

Campuses with less racial, socio-economic diversity judged on fewer criteria
September 9, 2007
By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News

The Divide Independent School District fits comfortably into a two-room schoolhouse.

Its 13 students make up the smallest district in the state. According to the Texas school accountability system, it is also one of the best – one of just 19 rated exemplary.

Three years into the TAKS system and more than five years into the federal No Child Left Behind law, those rewarded with the best performance remain a largely homogeneous group.

The state's exemplary districts tend to be small and rural, like Divide, or wealthy and suburban, like the four in North Texas: Southlake Carroll, Highland Park, Lovejoy and Sunnyvale.

That leaves some questioning whether school ratings have more to do with a district's demographics than the quality of its teaching.

The ratings system uses 36 accountability measures, the majority tied to performance on the TAKS exams. But most exemplary districts are judged on 10 or fewer measures because they don't have enough poor and minority students to count toward their rating. Both groups tend to score lower than their white and wealthier counterparts.

Divide's small size means that it had to perform well in only three subjects last school year. Highland Park had the distinction of having no poor students.

Overall, of the students attending exemplary districts last year, 5 percent were poor and 88 percent were white. Most exemplary districts have only several hundred students. And rarely do they have any with limited English skills.

In contrast, 55 percent of Texas public school students were poor and 36 percent were white. The largest student group is Hispanic.

Education officials now recognize that taking a snapshot in time of children at a certain grade level does not fully reflect how well school districts are educating children – especially those who are most vulnerable.

On both the state and federal level, educators are examining ways to rework the accountability system to measure whether a child's performance is improving from year to year. Texas legislators recently approved putting such a growth model into place by 2009.

"How do we acknowledge districts that do a really good job of advancing students, particularly disadvantaged students?" said Sandy Kress, a former education policy adviser to President Bush who helped design the state and federal accountability systems. "That is something that we probably as a state and a country need to keep working on in terms of refinements in our accountability system."

How it works

Mr. Kress was a Dallas school board trustee when he first pushed to examine the test scores of poor and minority students. Breaking out those scores exposed the achievement gap.

In 1992, the test-based accountability system was born in Texas. It served as the model for No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002.

The legislation forced schools to be accountable for the performance of disadvantaged children and increase their efforts to help them, instead of ignore them.

But many question how much progress has been made.

"The whole point of the education reforms was to change that situation and create a system where demography would not be destiny," said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "But we clearly haven't reached that day yet."

His group, which focuses on education reform, found Texas was one of only five states to show progress in the scores of poor children.

Under the Texas accountability system, districts are judged on the performance of children in math, reading, writing, science and social studies. In each subject, they are also rated on the subgroup performance of poor, black, Hispanic and white children.

Each year, the standards are raised. This year, 90 percent of students in each subgroup had to pass for the district to become exemplary. Poor scores by just a few students in one category can lower a district's entire rating.

Some parents and educators have complained that the system makes it much more difficult for diverse districts to earn high ratings because they have more hurdles to overcome.

The disparity between Divide and Dallas school districts is telling. Divide's 19 students last school year were rated on three measures – reading, writing and math scores for all students. Dallas, which last year had 159,144 students, 84 percent of whom are poor and 95 percent of whom are minority, was rated on all 36 measures.

Don Van Slyke, who follows education in Irving, argues school districts should be judged against those with similar demographics.

"Is the TEA comparing apples and oranges? No, it is more like grapes and watermelons," he wrote.

Some fear changes to the system could mean less focus on educating poor and minority children.

Texas Education Agency associate commissioner Criss Cloudt said similar complaints were made under the earlier TAAS tests. But she said expectations should not be lowered just because the higher ratings are difficult to earn.

"We had a lot of superintendents across the state saying it is absolutely impossible," she said. "Years later, we had a number of large districts recognized. I have no reason to think that something similar won't happen with the current [TAKS] system."

Exemplary districts

The top-rated districts tend to have similar traits.

Most are not rated on the performance of poor and minority children or on tougher subject areas such as science.

"We're a small, predominantly German Catholic community," said Dennis Holt, superintendent of Lindsay ISD, which had 512 students last school year. "We are small enough where the numbers don't come into play. We don't have all the different subgroups."

Some other patterns emerge:

• Only three of the 19 exemplary districts serve more than 1,000 students, according to enrollment data from last school year. All are in North Texas – Carroll, Highland Park and Lovejoy.

• Only six of the 19 districts are rated on the performance of poor children in any subject. Only five are rated on the performance of black or Hispanic students in any subject. Three are not rated on science scores.

• Only seven districts are rated at the high school level, where some of the highest failure rates occur on TAKS.

• The exemplary district with the highest number of measures to meet? Carroll, at 19.

While a number of individual schools with lots of poor and minority students have earned exemplary ratings from the state, the top tier is often more difficult to achieve on a districtwide level.

Southlake's Carroll ISD became the largest district to earn an exemplary rating this year after focusing intensely on math and science scores. The district had been recognized the previous year.

The exemplary rating is "a benchmark people use to tell the quality of our schools," superintendent David Faltys said. "But we try to address the TAKS, then move on to higher-level thinking as quickly as we can because that's what our community expects."

In tiny Divide, superintendent and teacher Bill Bacon said he believes his small classes mean children are less likely to be overlooked. But his exemplary district still has challenges.

With only two classrooms, he must teach to third- through sixth-graders and handle ESL and special education

"Sometimes, you just kind of feel like one of those guys on The Ed Sullivan Show trying to spin plates and keep all of them moving," he said. "If I have a child that doesn't pass, I still get rated on that. I almost have to have 100 percent passing to thrive."

Richardson's success

This year, TEA officials singled out Richardson schools as some of the best in the state when they held onto their recognized rating. Many districts, including Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Frisco and Plano, dropped this year from recognized to academically acceptable in part because standards were raised.

Richardson ISD was the largest diverse district to earn the recognized rating. With nearly half of its students last year economically disadvantaged – 16,797 – and with a majority of its students being minority, the district more closely reflects Texas schoolchildren than any exemplary district.

"You've got to look at who they have to work with," said Chrys Dougherty, the director of research for the National Center for Educational Accountability. "It's a whole lot harder for them. In a Highland Park, you would expect them to be exemplary even if the school system isn't adding any value to the kids."

Richardson superintendent David Simmons said his district's success involved including frequently analyzing test data to determine instruction and providing teacher training and mentoring.

"The more student populations you serve and the more subject areas tested, the more opportunities you have not to meet the standards," Dr. Simmons said. "Larger districts with large percentages of economically disadvantaged and limited English-proficient children have greater challenges. That's the reality we operate in."

Looking ahead

Increasing discontent with the accountability system is prompting policy experts and legislators to look at alternatives.

Earlier this year, legislators did away with longstanding exit exams required to graduate in Texas. In that same law, they created a committee to examine the current accountability system.

The goal is also to align it better with national standards. For example, Richardson is recognized this year under the Texas system, but it failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal program.

The committee will also focus on developing a growth model to measure how much progress children make in a year.

"The accountability system is going to have to change," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, who authored the legislation. "I think schools will be much more willing to be held accountable for the growth of the student as a result of the instruction that was provided by that school rather than factors that are beyond their control."

Dr. Dougherty said a growth model would better gauge whether districts are advancing children.

Instead of looking at "this year's third-graders versus last year," he said, "they're talking about looking at this year's third-graders and then looking at [them] next year in fourth grade – did they move up?"

A number of states are moving forward with pilot programs to measure growth. Dr. Cloudt said Texas will begin piloting several models next month.

Richardson's Dr. Simmons said looking at students' growth is more "labor intensive," but it is possible.

"We're still perfecting that," he said. "It's an evolving process."

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