Ratings improve for area schools; DISD reduces low performers; Highland Park, Carroll, Sunnyvale earn exemplary ratings

Friday, August 17, 2001
Page 1A

Ratings improve for area schools
DISD reduces low performers
Highland Park, Carroll, Sunnyvale earn exemplary ratings

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Buoyed by higher test scores, Dallas-Fort Worth area schools climbed higher up the state’s accountability charts, according to the Texas Education Agency’s annual report card.

With improvements in urban schools and continuing solid performances in the suburbs, the number of low-performing campuses in 54 area districts dropped from 45 to 17. The number rated by the state as exemplary increased from 256 to 277.

The gains were similar to those across the state. Texas education chief Jim Nelson said Thursday that a record number of districts and campuses achieved one of the top two performance ratings this year, and only one district – Hearne in Central Texas – was found to be academically unacceptable.

There were disturbing trends in the state’s charter school program, however, as more than half of those campuses received poor ratings, largely because of low student test scores.

In the D-FW area, three districts – Carroll, Highland Park and Sunnyvale – were rated exemplary, down from five last year. An additional 29 were rated recognized. Twenty-two were rated acceptable, and none was labeled low-performing.

DISD had 11 low-performing schools, the most of any district in the state. But that total was still a sharp improvement from 28 schools last year.

Three of the five area districts rated exemplary last year – Coppell, Forney and Grapevine-Colleyville – lost the title and were dropped to recognized. Only Highland Park, which was dropped to recognized because of a data-entry error last year, made the reverse move and became exemplary.

Mr. Nelson said that for the first time this year, a majority of students – 54 percent – are enrolled in schools that received an exemplary or recognized rating. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 45 percent of students are in highly rated districts.

“This is an outstanding performance for the state as a whole,” Mr. Nelson said. “Texas schools are making headway.

“But we can’t stop now. Schools must continue to improve performance levels in order to prepare students for the upcoming Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.” TAKS is the new state test that will be introduced in the 2002-03 school year, replacing TAAS.

The commissioner also said he has asked his staff to take a closer look at the large number of charter schools that have been hit with low performance ratings. Of 161 charter schools that were evaluated this year, 84 got low ratings.

The Fort Worth ISD had good news. Its number of exemplary schools increased from six to 10. And, for the first time, it had no low-performing schools.

Superintendent Thomas Tocco said district officials focused on improving reading and bilingual education.

“When I first started here, I was appalled that many of our students were not reading by grade three,” Dr. Tocco said. “Now we’re building a base for these children in elementary school that they should carry with them into the secondary grades. The bar continues to rise.”

Six other area districts – Arlington, Denton, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Grand Prairie, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Wilmer-Hutchins – had one low-performing school each.

Among the highlights of this year’s school performance ratings:

*A total of 178 districts and 1,567 schools earned exemplary ratings.
*An additional 463 districts and 2,326 campuses received recognized ratings.
*Acceptable ratings went to 398 districts and 2,476 schools.
*Statewide, 106 campuses were rated low-performing, 40 fewer than a year ago.
*Eight schools were singled out for special recognition because they have earned exemplary ratings for nine straight years. Five of those are in the Dallas area, including the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Mohawk Elementary School in Richardson and three elementary schools in Highland Park ISD – Armstrong, Hyer and University Park.

The dropout rate standard was tougher than last year, but the passing rate standard on the TAAS was the same.

Mr. Nelson said a decision was made not to increase the passing standard this year, unlike in previous years, because districts were subjected to other new criteria such as the lower acceptable dropout rate.

Next year, schools and districts will have to have a minimum passing rate of 55 percent on the TAAS and a dropout rate of 5 percent or less to get an acceptable rating.

When calculating its ratings, the Texas Education Agency requires districts to meet overall standards for its total student population and for four subgroups: whites, blacks, Hispanics and economically disadvantaged students. But until this year, most districts did not have a subgroup’s performance held against them if there were fewer than 200 students in the group.

This year, that ceiling was lowered to only 50 students, and several districts were measured by the performance of their subgroups for the first time.

Rockwall schools, which dropped from recognized to acceptable, put the blame on their drop on the new subgroups rule. In previous years, the passing rates of black and poor students on all tests and the passing rate of Hispanic students on the writing test had not been considered separately.

“We are not considering this a huge disaster,” said Deborah Smothermon, an assistant superintendent in Rockwall. “We were aware of the criteria change and that it might affect the rating.”

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district saw its academic ranking downgraded from recognized to acceptable because a single student at the district’s alternative education campus failed the writing TAAS. That failure lowered the school’s rating to low performing because he or she was the only student in the school who took the writing TAAS.

No district with a low-performing school can be rated above “acceptable,” and H-E-B lost its recognized title.

But the rating might be reversed on appeal by the school district. A TEA spokeswoman said the district stands a good chance of winning the appeal because it appeared that the inclusion of the alternative school’s scores was a mistake.

Regarding the low ratings for so many charter schools, Mr. Nelson and other education officials pointed to a new law that will beef up state oversight of those schools, beginning Sept. 1. The law also caps the number of charter schools at 215.

Charter schools are publicly financed and operate independently of the school districts where they are. They are not bound by many of the state regulations that apply to public schools, such as class size limits and minimum teacher requirements.

Staff writers Laurie Fox, Jeff Mosier and Jennifer Packer contributed to this report.