Good, great? Scores will tell; New TAKS ratings show which districts excel or simply pass

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Fundamental Law of Test Scores: It all depends on how you look at them.

Starting soon in Texas, there’ll be a new way – a way that’s likely to make some parents view their suburban school districts in a more negative light.

“It’s easy for schools to have a false sense of security,” said Brad Lancaster, Allen’s assistant superintendent for learning services. “They say, ‘Hey, 97 percent of our kids passed the test.’ But if all their kids passed by just one or two questions, they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

This week, students across the state will take the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. And next month, the state will report how many students passed, as it has for previous tests. But for the first time, it also will report how many students got nearly all of the test questions right – “commended performance,” in the state’s lingo.

The new measure should help parents distinguish between the schools where students do truly exemplary work and those where they barely eke over the passing bar.

It’s a much higher standard than anything parents are used to hearing about. The TAAS was purely pass/fail and, over time, passing ceased to be a struggle for most students. Last year, 85 percent of students passed.

There was a recognition of top performance on TAAS: Students who answered 95 percent of its questions right had the words “Academic Recognition” written on their score reports. But the state never informed parents how their school or district fared as a whole on that high standard.

Answering about nine of every 10 questions correctly on the tougher TAKS test is an accomplishment worth recognizing, officials said. (The percentage required for commended status varies from test to test, from 83.3 to 95 percent.)

“Over time, the passing rate by itself lost its significance to high-achieving schools and districts,” said Brad Duggan, president of the Austin-based National Center for Educational Accountability.

“Schools began to focus on higher goals, and this new standard will help them identify areas of improvement.”

Taking another look

The tougher standard is also expected to expose broader performance gaps between districts.

For example, take the reading scores of third-graders. (Third-graders took the TAKS reading test last month and are the only TAKS scores the state has announced.)

Last year, passing rates in suburban Dallas school districts were mostly clumped within a few points of each other in the mid-90s – nearly every student passed.

But among those same districts, the percentage of students who were commended on TAKS this year varied widely. In Highland Park, for instance, 65.7 percent of students were commended. In Birdville, 29.6 percent were.

Look at the scores one way, and the two districts look almost identical. Look another way, and the gap is obvious.

“It lets us be in the same system as the entire state but set our own higher goals,” said Highland Park Superintendent Cathy Bryce, who said her goal is to have 100 percent of the district’s students commended.

Friendly competition

While district officials always insist that educating children is its own reward, they acknowledge that seeing higher test scores in other districts can get their competitive fires burning.

“You’ll always have people looking at similar districts and asking, ‘How are they achieving? Are we holding our own?'” said John Doughney, director of assessment and curriculum in Grapevine-Colleyville. “We certainly want to show the homeowners in our district they’re getting their money’s worth when they send their children to our schools.”

“Everybody in this business is always looking to see how the school next to you or the district next to you did,” said Dr. Lancaster, the Allen ISD official.

Texas, usually viewed as being on the vanguard of accountability reform, is lagging behind the rest of the country on this one. As of 2001, only 13 states still used only a simple pass/fail on one or more of their major state exams.

Texas was one of the only states to use it on its flagship test.

The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress almost two years ago, required states to create multiple score cutoffs on their tests. But officials said Texas would likely have moved to a commended-like system even without the federal push.

“It gives schools and even individual students something to shoot for,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology. “They can think, ‘Well, this year I passed, but next year I can shoot for commended.'”

More to be decided

Still to be determined is what role the commended cutoff will have in the state’s new school rating system, to be unveiled in November.

Officials said it’s likely that schools will have to have a certain percentage of students achieve commended status in order to get a high rating such as “exemplary.”

One of the benefits of the old pass/fail ways was its simplicity. It was easy for parents and teachers to understand. Now the people who use test scores in their everyday lives – such as real estate agents who tout homes and neighborhoods because of school district test scores – will have to find new ways to explain the numbers.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Michael Campbell, president of the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors. “We’re all going to have to relearn how we look at reporting student achievement.”