Districts wanted more from court; While some thrilled, many fear funding won’t be boosted

By Holly K. Hacker and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 17A

The mixed ruling from the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday prompted equally mixed reactions from Dallas-area school districts.

As to how the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling will affect classrooms, stay tuned. The court ruled that part of the state’s $30 billion-a-year school finance system is unconstitutional, but it left solutions up to the Legislature.

“We’re thrilled by the ruling,” said Cathy Bryce, superintendent of the Highland Park Independent School District, a plaintiff in the case.

The court gave school districts a partial victory by ruling that local property taxes – the primary way of paying for public schools – have evolved into an unconstitutional state tax.

“It really sends a clear signal that we’ll have to look to other things than a property tax,” Dr. Bryce said.

But the court’s finding that schools have enough money to operate effectively disappointed some districts.

“We’re just having to cut, and it just gets tougher. The low-hanging fruit is gone,” said Tony Harkleroad, assistant superintendent of finance for the Richardson Independent School District.

The Legislature has to overhaul the property tax system by June 1, giving districts time to plan budgets for the next school year.

The high court did not agree with a lower court that the state must spend more money to give students an adequate education – disappointing districts that had pushed hard for billions more in state funding.

Still, the Supreme Court warned that public education in Texas “has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change,” be it more dollars, greater efficiency or better teaching.

The ruling did not change the state’s so-called Robin Hood system, through which property-wealthy districts send dollars to poor ones. Highland Park, for example, with its high property values, sends more than 70 percent of its property tax dollars to poor districts.

Growing excitement

The prospect of having money come from other sources excited some school officials.

“We can no longer put so much burden on the property taxpayers,” Dr. Bryce said.

State law allows school districts to charge a maximum property tax rate of $1.50 per $100 valuation. So many districts have reached that cap that it amounts to a statewide property tax, the Supreme Court ruled. And in Texas, that’s unconstitutional.

Debbie Cabrera, executive director of finance for Irving schools, said she hoped the Legislature would consider bolder changes to school finance than it has weighed in recent sessions. Some of the bolder proposals would have lowered property taxes but not substantially increased funding for schools or given districts more flexibility to set their own tax rates.

“Maybe this will finally clue them in that they can’t do that,” she said. “They just have to throw it all out and start over again.”

But some superintendents were less sure, primarily because the court resisted districts’ pleas to pump more state money into schools to ensure an “adequate” education. They said the ruling doesn’t guarantee more money will reach students, only that it will come from different sources.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Mac Bernd, Arlington’s superintendent. “Not addressing adequacy is discouraging to us because we’re not a rich district. Public education in this state really needs to address the needs of every student, no matter where he or she happens to live.”

As it stands, Dr. Bernd said, “the Legislature could simply replace one tax with another and not address the issue of adequacy at all.”

Decision time

Kenneth English, Duncanville’s superintendent, said Texans will have to decide what they want from their public schools.

“Do we want to be barely adequate?” Dr. English said. “If we want a first-class workforce, a well-educated citizenry, we probably need to set the standard a little bit higher, which would require more resources.”

In Richardson, district officials have had to close two schools, raise class sizes and offer fewer high school electives because of rising costs and challenges, Mr. Harkleroad said. And Tuesday’s ruling just sends a fundamental question back to Austin.

“What it boils down to is, how do you pay for it?” he said. Everybody wants good schools, he said, “but nobody wants to pay for it.”

Linda Henrie, Mesquite’s superintendent, said she was also disappointed the court didn’t order more money into the system. “We would like to have reading specialists on every campus, but we’re not able to do that,” she said. “Our class sizes are larger than the state average. We simply cannot have as many people as we would like.”

But for now, her eyes – along with those of educators around the state – turn to the Capitol in Austin.

“So much is going to depend on what the Legislature does,” Dr. Henrie said.

Until then, what happens is anybody’s guess, said Thomas Graca, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“All school districts can do is hold their breath,” Dr. Graca said. “Basically the Supreme Court has told the Legislature and the state they’ve got to do something to fix the funding system prior to the next school year.”

TAKS welcomes three new additions to the family; Tests are state’s attempt to satisfy federal special-ed requirements

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The TAKS test is only three years old, so it may seem a bit young to be starting a family.

But the state’s main standardized test is preparing to welcome three new tests into the world: TAKS-I, TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt. And you thought there were already enough acronyms in academia.

The three new sister tests promise to make an already confusing test landscape downright bewildering.

They are an attempt to satisfy federal requirements for special-education students and push Texas schools to raise their standards.

“There’s an increased focus on giving special-education students access to the regular curriculum,” said Cari Wieland, director of special-education assessment for the Texas Education Agency.

“We want special-education students to have the benefits of higher expectations. Not every student will be able to do it, but we want to get closer to that goal.”

Most Texas students will never take any of the new tests, but many of the state’s 500,000 special-ed students will.

Educators say they don’t know enough about the tests – which are still in early development – to judge their quality.

But at least one is hopeful.

“I’m looking forward to see what the future is,” said Cindi Walker, director of special education for Fort Worth schools.

Here’s an introduction to the three new members of the family:

TAKS-I

The “I” stands for “Inclusive.” It’s a direct response to new federal requirements laid out in last year’s renewal of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. That’s the law that governs special-education policy nationwide.

The law now includes a basic requirement: If a state offers a test for mainstream students, it has to offer a corresponding test for special-ed students.

For most grade levels and subjects, Texas already meets that requirement. It gives the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to students in grades three through 11 in a variety of subjects. It gives the SDAA II – the second version of the State Developed Alternative Assessment – to special-ed students in most of those grades.

Most, but not all. There’s no SDAA II for science or social studies at any grade. And there’s no SDAA II for 11th-graders.

Enter the TAKS-I. It will be given in the grades where SDAA II isn’t, starting in February.

That’s just the beginning. The grand plan is to replace the SDAA II with TAKS-I in all grades and all subjects.

“We’re thinking of this as a kind of transition,” said Victoria Young, who directs the TAKS program for the Texas Education Agency. “We’re hoping we have a couple of years to take a look at this and see how it works.”

What makes the TAKS-I different? Its questions will be identical to those on the regular TAKS. The only differences: There’ll be fewer of them, and they’ll be printed in a larger size for students with visual problems. Some students will also be allowed to use instructional aids such as dictionaries during the test.

Unlike the SDAA II, for which a child’s required passing standard is set by his or her teachers and parents, TAKS-I will have a uniform standard for all students. Passing the TAKS-I will require the same level of performance as passing the regular TAKS.

That’s good news to federal officials, who have pressed Texas and other states to raise standards for special-ed students. New federal regulations require states to limit the number of children who are outside the state’s mainstream testing system.

The other big change will be that TAKS-I will only be given to special-education students who are performing on grade level. Students can currently take versions of the SDAA II that are at grade level or versions that are significantly easier, depending on the child’s ability.

TAKS-M

The “M” stands for “Modified.” The TAKS-M will look a lot like the TAKS-I, but it will be given to children who are performing below their grade level. For instance, an eighth-grade special-ed student who is learning at a third-grade level would take the TAKS-M instead of the TAKS-I.

The TAKS-M will probably be used more often than the TAKS-I because most students in special education are behind their peers. Last spring, about 209,000 students took the math version of the SDAA II. Only about one-fourth of those were learning on grade level, according to state statistics.

TAKS-Alt

The “Alt” stands for “Alternative.” TAKS-Alt is less a test than a tool that teachers can use to evaluate the most severely disabled children, those with serious cognitive disabilities. It will probably take the form of an online checklist, Ms. Wieland said.

Those students are currently evaluated with locally chosen assessments, many of which are designed by teachers or district staff members. New federal rules say those children must be evaluated with a state-developed tool.

The TAKS-I will debut Feb. 21. It’s still unclear when it will expand to other grades or when the TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt will follow. That’s because federal officials must approve the new tests, and negotiations are ongoing. Ms. Wieland said the transition wouldn’t be completed until 2007-08 at the earliest.

Even the names of the TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt could change during development, she added. “We’re still in the planning stages,” she said.

What’s also unknown is how these tests will be integrated into the federal and state school ratings system. SDAA II results are an ingredient in the current ratings system, and poor performance on the test has tripped up some schools seeking high ratings. State officials have said TAKS-I results won’t be counted against schools in 2006 but may be included in the system in future years.

But Ms. Walker said she hopes the new system provides a more unified system for testing, better tying the expectations of special-ed students to those of other children.

“We’ve got to be accountable for results, and TEA is really working to make sure those tests are aligned with each other,” she said.

Missing: 20,000 standardized tests; Of statewide total, DISD leads in exams lost, mostly TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

More than 20,000 copies of state tests – supposedly kept under lock and key – disappeared from Texas schools this spring, according to state data. Dallas schools lost more than 7,000 test documents, more than any other district in the state.

State officials say they are reconsidering their testing security policies after some experts said having Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, questions floating around the state could put the integrity of the testing system at risk.

“We probably need to look at some ways to strengthen our security,” said Susan Barnes, associate commissioner of standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency.

In all, 26,998 secure test documents from spring 2005 were missing as of Oct. 28. That total includes documents such as test coordinator manuals, but the vast majority are the test booklets.

That’s a small percentage of the more than 12 million secure test documents the state produces each year for a range of subjects and grade levels, state officials said.

“We have accounted for 99.78 percent of the documents,” said Lisa Chandler, TEA’s director of assessment. “We’re not concerned by that rate.”

But some say loose test documents can be a threat, even in small numbers.

“Every time you lose even one, it’s potentially a problem,” said John Fremer, former top test developer of the SAT and a founder of Caveon, the Utah company that Texas has hired to analyze its test results for signs of cheating. “Whenever you have a large operation where you send out millions of tests, you’re going to have some shortage.”

The number of missing tests statewide was first reported by KHOU-TV in Houston on Monday. KHOU is owned by Belo, which also owns The Dallas Morning News.

Dallas schools spokesman Donald Claxton said Monday that he did not yet know any details about the missing test documents. “We’re looking into it,” he said.

Evelyn Reed, Dallas’ director of systemwide testing, did not return a phone message Monday.

Normally, having test booklets unaccounted for would not be a major security concern in Texas. For the last several years, the state has released complete copies of its tests to the public shortly after they were administered. The releases were intended to increase public confidence in the tests and to help educators prepare students.

Recycled questions

But those annual releases meant the state had to rewrite all of its tests each year at substantial cost. As a cost-cutting measure, the Texas Education Agency now plans to release its tests every other year and recycle test questions in between releases.

In other words, the 2006 TAKS test will include questions already used on the 2005 TAKS – which means having loose copies of the 2005 test floating around is not a good thing.

“Anytime you don’t have entirely new items every year, you have a greater security risk,” Dr. Fremer said.

He said that if too many copies of the test are unaccounted for, a state might have to adjust how many questions it reuses on future tests. State officials said they would not discuss how many questions they will reuse next year.

Each spring, testing documents are shipped to school districts from Pearson, the company that Texas hired to administer its major state tests. The documents are supposed to be stored in a locked location until test day.

When students are finished testing, the answer sheets are shipped immediately back to Pearson for grading. The test booklets are sent back from individual campuses to district officials, who then ship them back to Pearson.

Districts receive more test booklets than they expect to use, Ms. Chandler said. That’s in case more students than expected show up on test day. But if schools have more test booklets than they need – and school officials know that missing test booklets will not result in any serious sanction – it could tempt some educators to look at test booklets ahead of time and help students cheat.

In recent years, as allegations of educator-led cheating have hit some Texas schools, several teachers have said that copies of the TAKS test are sometimes circulated around schools before test day.

Dr. Barnes said she doubted that scenario would happen. “We have people signing oaths, and they know that people could report them” if they do something wrong, she said.

But she said that, to her knowledge, no Texas school has been investigated or sanctioned in recent memory for not returning all its test booklets. TEA does not ask schools with large numbers of missing test booklets to explain their disappearance.

According to Texas Education Agency data, 7,084 test booklets from this spring’s state testing in DISD have disappeared.

That’s many more than other large districts in the state. Houston lost 1,111, Austin lost 436, and Fort Worth lost 384.

Of the lost Dallas test documents, the largest number – 5,989 – were from the state’s main exam, the TAKS. The remainder was from other tests, such as the alternative assessment the state gives to special-education students.

Largest disappearance

The state’s single largest disappearance of testing documents came in Dallas after the TAKS tests administered on Feb. 22 and 23. Those tests covered reading in grades 3, 5 and 9, writing in grades 4 and 7, and English language arts in grades 10 and 11.

Two of those tests – the reading tests in grades 3 and 5 – carry high stakes for children, because students must generally pass them in order to move on to the next grade.

Of the 64,883 test booklets distributed to DISD for those tests, 5,150 have gone missing, according to state data. That’s more than eight times the number of tests to disappear from the next biggest document loss: 627 tests that disappeared from a Houston ISD special-education test session.

Several other area districts also had test documents missing, according to state data. Carrollton-Farmers Branch was missing 100 documents. Plano had 154, Richardson had 136, and Irving had 105.

TEA asked University of North Carolina professor Gregory Cizek to evaluate Texas’ test security measures this year, but he did not delve into the issue of lost test documents. As part of his report, he surveyed district testing administrators about their thoughts on weaknesses in the system.

“Tracking secure materials in large districts that have very small staff is like herding cats,” one anonymous administrator wrote. “The volume is overwhelming to handle without the chance of something being misplaced. Imagine 63,000 test booklets and three to four people in central trying to keep track of all of it.”