Schools may get ratings reprieve; Dumping TAAS, adopting TAKS will complicate scoring

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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After years of preaching the benefits of the state’s school district rating system, officials are considering putting it on hiatus next year.

The uncertainties surrounding a new state test debuting next year – the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS – may make judging school districts too difficult in 2003, state officials said. Instead, they may just hold over ratings that will be issued in August.

“The system we’re coming up with for 2003 won’t be like anything people have seen before,” said Adrienne Sobolak, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman. “And it will probably never be done again.”

Officials said that final decisions had not been made and that an official announcement was expected in the next two weeks.

Since 1994, the TEA has rated schools and school districts primarily on their students’ performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS. The current ratings system places schools in one of four main categories. From best to worst, they are: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing.

Each category is triggered by a certain passing rate on the TAAS. For instance, if 80 percent of a school’s students pass each section of the TAAS and certain other conditions are met, that school will be rated “recognized.”

But this spring was the last statewide administration of the TAAS. Next year, it will be replaced by the TAKS, which is widely expected to be significantly tougher. State officials have predicted that passing rates will drop statewide once the TAKS is given next spring.

Because Texas students have never taken a real TAKS test, it’s difficult to specify what the appropriate rating standards will be. The State Board of Education won’t decide until November what score students will need to pass the test. It’s undetermined what passing rates schools or districts would need to achieve certain ratings, and it’s unclear what those ratings would be.

2 systems at once

Settling many of those issues will become more manageable once the first TAKS results come in next spring and state officials are better able to judge what standards to set for 2004.

Until then, they’re in a bind.

“In effect, we’re designing two accountability systems at the same time,” Ms. Sobolak said. “One is going to be based on the TAKS and will start in 2004. The other is a transitional system for 2003.”

Commissioner Felipe Alanis is considering several options, but Ms. Sobolak said the leading possibility was to simply carry over district ratings.

Those ratings, due in August, are based on the TAAS tests taken this year.

In other words, if a district is rated “recognized” this August, it would remain “recognized” until new ratings come out in 2004.

Officials are also considering issuing a simple “pass/fail” rating for individual schools so that troubled schools could be designated by the state and targeted for assistance.

TEA officials considered eliminating district and school ratings for 2003 – a “ratings holiday,” as the idea was termed. But that plan was rejected when it became clear that state law requires that districts, at a minimum, be given some sort of rating. The law does not, however, say how those ratings must be calculated, officials said.

State officials have long known that switching to a new test in 2003 would pose unique problems. “We were frequently having conversations about ’03,” said Jim Nelson, the former commissioner who is now in private industry in Dallas. “We were focused on finding a way to make a smooth transition from one test to the other. And you can’t make a lot of the judgments you need to on a test without having some results in hand.”

The last time the state switched to a new test, in 1990, the state didn’t have an accountability system in place, Ms. Sobolak said.

For school leaders, having a one-year break in ratings will ease the transition to the new test.

“With two years before the next ratings, we’ll have the time to focus on any problems we have in the meantime,” said Duncanville Superintendent Jerry Cook.

Promotions at issue

Along with the TAKS debut, 2003 will be the first year of the state’s “social promotion” program. Under that law, third-graders who do not pass the reading portion of the TAKS will not be advanced to the fourth grade, though some exceptions apply.

Critics have argued that such a high-stakes decision shouldn’t be based on an unproven test such as TAKS in its first year.

Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, supported a bill in the last legislative session that would have pushed the initiative back one year. The House passed the bill, but the Senate did not vote on it.

“If our commissioner makes the decision that in fairness, we should not rank school districts using the new exam in its first year, it’s only fair that we not start hurting 9-year-olds based on that same test in its first year,” he said.