School district ratings decline; But more campuses earn high marks; area rankings stay same

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Performance ratings for Texas school districts declined for the first time in several years in 2002 as middle-school students came up short in their knowledge of government and history.

But collective marks for individual campuses were up over last year as a record number of schools achieved one of the two highest performance ratings from the state based on test scores and dropout rates.

Charter schools, meanwhile, continued to fare poorly as more than 40 percent of the open-enrollment campuses received low ratings, according to the Texas Education Agency.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there was no change in the number of exemplary districts. The three districts that got the top rating last year – Carroll, Highland Park and Sunnyvale – maintained it.

The boundary between the next two ratings was more fluid. Eight area districts – Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Duncanville, Ennis, Everman, Ferris, Lewisville, Royse City and Wylie – dropped from recognized status to acceptable.

Another eight districts moved in the opposite direction and became recognized: Denton, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Mansfield, McKinney, Northwest, Red Oak, Sanger and Waxahachie.

Allen and Grapevine-Colleyville each earned recognized ratings, but school leaders might be excused for wanting more. All of both districts’ nonalternative campuses were rated exemplary, the highest rating possible.

The area’s two biggest districts, Dallas and Fort Worth, were rated acceptable.

In all, the area had 31 recognized districts and 20 acceptable districts, both unchanged from last year. No area districts were rated academically unacceptable.

Model for federal plan

Release of the annual ratings came as Texas closed out the school accountability system that has been used for nine years and was a model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act approved by Congress earlier this year. The state will shift to a new system of rating schools in 2004.

In announcing the ratings on Thursday, state Education Commissioner Felipe Alanis focused on the positives and pointed out how far the public schools have come since the first ratings were compiled in 1994.

“We know there is still work to be done, but the improved academic performance we have seen in this state since the accountability system began is a testament to the hard work of educators, students and parents,” Dr. Alanis said.

This was the second year in a row that a majority of students in the state were enrolled in schools that received either an exemplary or recognized rating.

Campuses and school districts are graded with one of four performance ratings under the accountability system. Those are exemplary, recognized and acceptable, with unacceptable for districts and low-performing for schools.

Here are the highlights of this year’s school performance ratings:

*There were 143 exemplary school districts, down from 178 last year, and 425 recognized districts, down from 471 last year. In addition, the number of academically unacceptable districts jumped from one last year to 17 this year. The rest of the state’s 1,040 districts were acceptable.

*A total of 1,908 campuses were exemplary and 2,400 were recognized. Both are the highest numbers ever recorded in the top two categories of the rating system. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of low-performing campuses jumped from 100 last year to 162 this year.

*Out of 201 independent charter schools that were graded, 83 received poor ratings, including 40 that were evaluated under the same system as regular schools and 43 that were evaluated under alternative criteria.

Social studies faulted

State education officials said the lower ratings for school districts were primarily the result of poor scores by eighth-graders on Texas Assessment of Academic Skills social studies questions.

This was the first year those scores figured into the performance ratings.

“Social studies was the key factor in the drop,” Dr. Alanis said. He predicted that schools will put more focus on social studies in the next few years now that it has become a permanent element of the accountability system.

As far as the increase in the number of campuses with low performance ratings, the commissioner pointed to the difficulty students had on the social studies and writing portions of the TAAS as well as the tougher standard to get an acceptable rating.

This year, campuses had to get a 55 percent passing rate on the TAAS to be rated acceptable – up from 50 percent last year. They also had to have a dropout rate of 5 percent or less.

Ratings earned this year will be in place for two years while the state develops new accountability standards based on a new test to be administered next spring, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The new exam will be more difficult, test students in more subjects and be taken by more students annually than the TAAS.

“I hope the public will be patient with us as we learn our new system,” Dr. Alanis said, predicting that test scores and performance ratings will almost inevitably drop.

Districts to appeal

Because schools and districts will be stuck with their ratings for two years, at least six area districts are planning to appeal their ratings to the TEA.

Arlington, for example, is appealing the low-performing rating given to Carter Junior High, which lowered the overall district rating from recognized to acceptable. Had five more Hispanic students passed the writing test, Carter would have been rated acceptable. Administrators have asked that those writing tests be rescored.

“Let’s just say I’m not effusing with optimism,” Superintendent Mac Bernd said.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch fell one passing student short of a recognized rating for the entire district. Richardson’s Berkner High School fell to low-performing because of its dropout tally. Lewisville fell 10 students short of recognized, based on writing scores. All are appealing.

The state also released its latest round of dropout data Thursday. The state’s annual dropout rate dropped to 1 percent, from last year’s 1.3 percent.

Critics have long charged that the state’s dropout methodology underestimates the size of Texas’ dropout problem. Last year, for example, Texas schools enrolled 360,000 freshmen but only 220,000 seniors, despite low reported dropout rates.

By the state’s count, the annual dropout rate has fallen by 85 percent since 1988, when it reported that 6.7 percent of students dropped out each year.