Saturday, January 24, 2009

State schools' success to be measured by growth

By Lindsay Kastner - Express-News

In one of the Bush administration's final education decisions, the U.S. Department of Education agreed to allow Texas to use a new method to assess public schools and districts.

Often pointed to as the administration's signature domestic policy, the No Child Left Behind Act calls for all students to reach proficiency in all subject areas by the 2013-2014 school year.

But under what is known as a “growth model” Texas will begin monitoring student progress over time, rather than determining whether a set percentage of students has passed state tests each year.

The U.S. DOE granted conditional approval of the Texas model last week, pending final approval of the TAKS-Alternate, a test for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

The federal government began a pilot of growth models in 2005, allowing all states to apply beginning in December 2007.

Including Texas, 15 states now have permission to use a growth model. The 2014 proficiency goal remains in place for those states.

Educators tend to favor growth models, but they require tracking individual student progress over time, and not all states have the capability to tackle the more complex measurements.

Texas had the technical ability to follow individual students over several years before many other states.

North East Independent School District Superintendent Richard Middleton sat on a committee that recommended Texas begin using a growth model.

“We still want accountability. We still want the tests to be rigorous and challenging,” Middleton said. “But we want to gauge how students are doing over time, to give schools credit for growth.”

He said the current system provides educators with little useful information, taking a snapshot of student performance each year without tracking progress.

“You really weren't watching the growth of those same students. So it really wasn't a fair or legitimate measure of anything,” he said.

Texas' growth model uses test scores from one year to predict performance in future years and will allow schools and districts to receive credit for students who failed state tests but are projected to pass in the future.

Called the Texas Projection Measure, it is modeled in part on a system used by the Dallas Independent School District.

If Texas had been using a growth model last year, an additional 136 school districts (11 percent) and 411 schools (5 percent) would have met federal standards, according to Texas Education Agency estimates.

David Francis, director of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics at the University of Houston, favors the differentiated approach despite the possibility that they could be perceived as an easier route toward meeting federal standards.

“That's always a concern,” Francis said, adding, “If our real goal is to have students graduate from high school proficient ... then schools should get credit for moving students toward that goal, rather than meeting standards along the way.”

The state also plans to incorporate the Texas Projection Measure into the state accountability system, said Criss Cloudt, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

The growth model will begin to be applied this year with the TAKS, or Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and TAKS-Accommodated reading and math tests.

It will be added in 2010 to newer tests for students with special needs, because the state lacks sufficient data to begin earlier with those tests.

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