New study shakes up school rating system; researchers put higher value on ‘proficiency,’ level playing field

Saturday, October 20, 2001
Page 33A

New study shakes up school rating system
Researchers put higher value on ‘proficiency,’ level playing field

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

By most standards, Flower Mound Elementary School is doing an excellent job.

State officials have labeled it “exemplary.” More than 90 percent of its students pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills each year. A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of America’s “Blue Ribbon Schools.”

But a new study released Friday says it – along with many other area schools – is failing its children. On a scale of one to five stars, Flower Mound gets a lowly one.

“Well, my goodness,” Flower Mound principal Connie Gall said when hearing of the rating by the Austin-based education research group Just for the Kids. “If they want to cut the cake that way, I suppose that’s what they come up with.”

The group’s study, published on the website of Texas Monthly, is a new twist on the same approach Just for the Kids has used on its website for several years. The study uses Texas Education Agency data but attempts to improve upon the state’s four-tiered accountability system and its familiar labels – exemplary, recognized, acceptable, and low-performing.

The results, for more than 5,000 schools statewide, can sometimes seem odd. Dallas’ Lakewood Elementary, which had a TAAS passing rate 20 percentage points lower than the one-star Flower Mound school, got four stars from Just for the Kids. The TEA rated Lakewood low-performing this year because only 47 percent of its black students passed the math portion; the school otherwise would
have been rated acceptable.

Different standards

The disparities result from two vastly different approaches to examining the same set of numbers.

Unlike the state system, Just for the Kids rates schools not by how many students passed the TAAS but by the percentage of students who reached a higher standard.

According to TEA standards, passing means getting a 70 on the Texas Learning Index, the scale used to grade the tests. For most tests, Just for the Kids uses a “proficiency” standard, a measure of how many students score 85 on the learning index.

“If you’re having lots of kids passing the test, but they’re not proficient, there are some sizable holes in your curriculum,” said Chrys Dougherty, the group’s director of research.

But the biggest difference in approaches is how Just for the Kids tries to eliminate socioeconomic factors from schools’ ratings.

For each school being rated, the group created a list of Texas schools that it considers equally or more disadvantaged, as determined by things such as poverty rate and the number of students who have trouble with English. Then it found which schools in that group fared the best on state tests.

How far a school fell behind the top-performing schools in its economic group determined what Just for the Kids calls its “opportunity gap.”

In other words, schools are expected to do as well on state tests as all schools with more disadvantaged student bodies. Falling short of that standard means a lower rating.

Finally, schools are divided into four quartiles based on their poverty levels and assigned star ratings. Schools with the best “opportunity gap” in a quartile got five stars; those with the worst gaps got one star.

“The whole system is designed so there’s no advantage or disadvantage because of income levels,” Dr. Dougherty said.

Shock to some schools

The different method can make suburban schools used to high ratings look worse. Several schools rated exemplary by TEA – such as Vaughan Elementary in Allen, Durham Elementary in Carroll, and Bray Elementary in Cedar Hill – got one star. All had TAAS passing rates above 90 percent.

In Flower Mound’s case, the school’s low poverty rate – 2 percent of students qualify under federal standards for low- and reduced-price lunches – put it up against some tough competition statewide.

“Our passing rates are in the 90s, but we can be better,” said Ms. Gall, the principal. “It’s like a five-star restaurant: Some people might love it, other people might say, ‘It’s not my thing.'”

In contrast, schools such as Lakewood often come out ahead in the Just for the Kids ratings because they’re compared with other schools with less-advantaged students.

But Carol Brown, assistant principal at Lakewood, cautioned that statewide standards are set because all schools are expected to meet them.

“The state has said that every child in Texas should know a certain set of knowledge,” she said. “You have to be judged against all schools, because all children can learn, and they’re all capable.”

But that doesn’t mean she won’t brag about her school’s four-star rating. Many schools promote their high performances on TEA ratings by having employees answer phones with something like, “Smith Elementary, an exemplary school. How may I help you?” Ms. Brown said the school might consider doing something similar with the new ratings.

“If you can say five-star general, I think you can say four-star school,” she said. “We’ll have to think about that. My chest is sticking out.”