By Joshua Benton
Schools have a new set of hoops to jump through.
The Texas Education Agency announced a preliminary version of its new school ratings system Friday. It outlines the new set of standards schools must meet to earn the state’s coveted ratings.
The bottom line: It’ll be much harder to earn a top rating than before, and the number of highly rated schools and districts is certain to drop statewide.
But the new rules also include more flexibility than some educators had expected.
“I appreciate that they’ve built in some options for schools,” Plano Superintendent Doug Otto said.
Texas first started rating schools and districts in 1994, primarily on how their students performed on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests. The ratings are the centerpiece of the state’s education reform record and have proven to be a strong motivator for schools to improve.
Over time, parents and community leaders adopted the labels – exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing – as signifiers of quality. Real estate agents used them when talking up one neighborhood over another.
For starters, say goodbye to the dreaded “low-performing” tag, the state’s lowest under the old system. It’s been renamed “academically unacceptable.” The old “acceptable” tag got a subtler rechristening as “academically acceptable.” The state’s two highest grades, “exemplary” and “recognized,” remain the same.
The ratings will be determined primarily by passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the test that replaced TAAS last year. To be exemplary, a school must have a 90 percent passing rate in all subject areas: math, science, social studies, writing and reading/English language arts. In addition, it must meet the 90 percent standard in all its student subgroups: white, black, Hispanic and poor.
To be recognized, the cutoff is 70 percent. Under the old system, it was 80 percent.
The complication comes at the academically acceptable level. The state has set different cutoffs for each test: 50 percent for social studies, writing and reading/English language arts; 35 percent for math; and 25 percent for science.
That’s in part a recognition that science has historically been the forgotten element of the state’s testing system. Science has never counted toward a school’s state rating before.
“Social studies and science are now receiving the same prominence as reading and math have in the past,” said Allen Superintendent Jenny Preston. “That’s a new component of the system.”
Also new this year: Two ways for schools to earn higher ratings with lower test scores. Schools whose scores are improving rapidly will be able to avoid the academically unacceptable tag even if their scores miss the mark. And some schools will be able to miss cutoffs in up to three student subgroups and still get a higher rating.
“That says to me that they’ve listened to what educators have been asking for: ‘Please stop and look at the improvement we’re making,'” said Irving High School principal Carolyn Dowler.
The system has two other requirements, one regarding special-education students and one on high school completion rates.
The end result of all these changes will be lower ratings across the board.
“It’s going to be tougher,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “We probably won’t see as many exemplary districts and campuses as we used to see. But we firmly believe our schools can reach these new bars.”
She pointed out that in 1994, only 22 campuses statewide earned the exemplary title. In 2002, the old system’s last year, 1,908 schools were exemplary.
Particularly hard-hit in the transition: suburban areas that have gotten used to exemplary schools. Many will see their neighborhood campuses drop to recognized or worse.
“We’re expecting a downshifting of scores until everybody can ramp up with the new system,” Dr. Otto said. “I think everybody’s going to be affected.”
The system is far too complicated to project how area schools will fare, but here are some examples of how last year’s test scores would have affected a few:
*Highland Park’s McCulloch Intermediate has been exemplary every year since 1996. But if its students don’t improve their TAKS performance from last year, their science scores could drop the school to recognized.
*Plano’s Shepton High School has been exemplary since 1995. But last year’s math and science scores were only good enough to earn an academically acceptable rating under the new system.
*Apollo Junior High in Richardson was exemplary in the last TAAS ratings. But math scores for minority students could drop it to academically acceptable.
In general, high schools and middle schools should see the biggest rating drops because they have lower TAKS scores than elementary schools.
In Dallas, only one high school, North Dallas, is currently rated low-performing under the old system. But if last year’s TAKS scores are repeated, 12 high schools could be academically unacceptable.
The ratings system was originally supposed to be released in December. TEA officials have attributed the delay to the effort required to meet federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law – which created another, separate rating system for schools called adequate yearly progress.
It will be possible under the new system for a school to get a thumbs-down from one system and a thumbs-up from the other. For example, a school could be exemplary but miss adequate yearly progress, or academically unacceptable and make such progress.
TEA officials will be accepting public comment on the plan until March 27. The plan will be finalized in early April.
The first ratings based on the new system will be released in October.