Big test lies ahead for Texas schools; State: 30% may fall short of new standards, face federal sanctions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Thirty percent of Texas schools – more than 2,000 in all – will fail to meet tough new testing standards and could face federal sanctions if they don’t quickly improve, state officials said Thursday.

“It will be a challenge for our schools,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

On Thursday, the state announced its proposed definition of “adequate yearly progress,” a term likely to become as common as “exemplary,” “recognized” and “low-performing” in education circles during the next few years.

Adequate yearly progress, or AYP, is the term used in No Child Left Behind, the federal education act signed into law by President Bush last January. The law requires all 50 states to define the term; if schools or districts fail to meet AYP’s standards, sanctions kick in over time.

In a proposal sent to federal officials Thursday, the state announced that schools would have to have 46.8 percent of their students pass the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading test to make adequate yearly progress. Schools also must have 33.4 percent of students pass the TAKS math test.

Those numbers may not seem ambitious after years of high passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the test phased out last year. So why do state officials predict that so many schools will fail to meet the standard?

First, the TAKS test will be significantly harder than the TAAS, which tested only basic skills, authorities say.

More crucially, the old TAAS-based accountability system looked at the performance of all students in a school and students falling into several subgroups: blacks, whites, Hispanics and poor students. If a school’s test scores were below the defined standard in any one of those subgroups, its rating was lowered.

AYP adds two categories to that list: special education students and students who have problems reading and writing English. Those students typically have more trouble passing standardized tests. Under AYP, all it takes for a school to fall short is for one subgroup to fall short.

In addition, the state will use two other factors to determine whether a school reaches the bar: its graduation rate (for high schools) and its attendance rate (for elementary and middle schools). Those standards have not been determined. Also, schools must test nearly all their students – 95 percent, including special education students – to make the grade.

In all, the TEA predicts that 2,089 of the state’s 6,950 schools would have failed to make adequate yearly progress last year under the existing definition. In addition, 285 of the 1,040 school districts in Texas would have fallen short.

There are consequences for not making AYP. If a school fails for two straight years, it must allow its students to transfer to any other school in its district – and pay for the daily transportation cost of getting students there.

After three straight years, it must take some of its federal funding and give it to students to spend on after-school tutoring, weekend classes or other private academic help.

Sanctions build from there: After seven years, the school can be taken over by the state, be turned into a charter school or be shut down and reopened with a new staff.

Districts also face sanctions. After a district misses adequate yearly progress four years, the state may move schools from one district to another, withhold state money, appoint a new superintendent or abolish the district.

And making AYP will get harder as time goes on. First, the state will make it more difficult to pass the TAKS over the next two years by raising the number of questions students will have to answer correctly to pass.

Then, in 2006, the passing rates required to make AYP will increase by about 10 percentage points. They’ll continue to increase every few years until 2014, when a 100 percent passing rate will be required to make adequate yearly progress – thus the law’s name, No Child Left Behind.

Schools will have to make remarkable progress over the next few years to avoid falling under the new standard. It’s likely that many schools that have been rated highly in the state’s accountability system will face the consequences of missing AYP.

“The AYP list will not be an exact mirror of the list of low-performing schools we’ve produced in the past,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

As of late Thursday, most Texas school superintendents hadn’t heard about the new standards. A top Dallas Independent School District administrator received them late in the day. Superintendent Mike Moses said he couldn’t yet judge the impact on the district.

“I just hope there’s been a lot of input allowed from educators,” Dr. Moses said.

One thing is certain: Parents, teachers and administrators will be confused.

AYP and the federal law are kicking in at the same time Texas is moving to the TAKS test – and at the same time as the state completely rebuilds its own accountability system.

AYP ratings are distinct from the traditional ratings Texans have gotten used to: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing. State officials are redefining the ratings system this year and will announce new standards in December.

“There’s going to be so much happening – a new test, a new state accountability system, AYP – that we want to give people a chance to figure out how it works,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The federal AYP calculation is expected to be a factor in those ratings, but how hasn’t been determined.

If anything, AYP reality could be worse than what the state predicts. The state’s projections are based on TAAS scores from 2002. But schools had been taking the TAAS for more than a decade; scores typically dip substantially in the first year of an unfamiliar new test such as the TAKS.

In addition, once the cutoffs for graduation rates and attendance rates are determined, they will probably drag more schools below the bar.

There are many details in the state’s plan to be worked out, and state officials said they will accept public comment on their proposals over the next several months.

Texas was facing a Friday deadline to submit its proposal to U.S. Department of Education officials. Federal and state officials will negotiate over the plan over the coming months; the final plan is due to be revealed in May.

“It could be confusing for the public if there are two accountability systems running at the same time,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “We will try to mesh those together as best we can.”