Schools in dark on rating system; As TAKS nears, delay of state’s accountability plan worries educators

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Are Texas schools supposed to be running a sprint or a marathon? Hurdles or a relay race?

That’s the analogy some area superintendents are using to decry an unexpected delay in the creation of the state’s new school ratings system. Their schools will be expected to meet a long series of state requirements this year or be rated failures.

But they don’t yet know what those requirements will be. All they know is that the requirements will be much harder than what they’re used to.

“Everyone needs to know what the parameters are, what the standards are,” said McKinney Superintendent David Anthony. “It’s an undue pressure on the campuses and the districts. Our teachers don’t need any additional stress in their lives.”

Here’s the problem: This fall, Texas public schools will be rated for the first time in two years, based primarily on how well their students perform on the TAKS test. The new accountability system – which determines how those ratings are decided – was supposed to be unveiled in December.

But the Texas Education Agency staff in charge of development has been swamped by other tasks – most significantly, working to make Texas compliant with the many requirements of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that requires states to develop a separate accountability system. That has pushed the complex new school ratings system back.

“I think it would have been better if they could have had that information in advance,” said Criss Cloudt, TEA’s associate commissioner in charge of accountability. “But we should have it soon.”

Dr. Cloudt said a preliminary version of the accountability system will be announced in the first week of March. After a period of public comment, the plans will be finalized in April, she said.

Students will take the year’s first Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests in only five days (Tuesday).

Since their debut in 1994, Texas’ school ratings have been the centerpiece of the state’s education reforms. They’re the primary symbol of quality that schools use to impress parents, voters and real estate agents.

In the past, schools were rated based primarily on how many of their students passed the state’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. For instance, at least 90 percent of a school’s students (and its students of varying racial subgroups) had to pass TAAS for the school to be “exemplary.”

But Texas replaced the relatively easy TAAS with the TAKS test last year. During the transition, the state took a one-year ratings holiday.

“The gold standard we subscribe to is the state rating system,” said Garland Superintendent Curtis Culwell. “We’re anxious to find out the new benchmarks.”

One small but highly visible change under consideration: Getting rid of the “low-performing” label, the lowest schools could earn under the old system.

Dr. Cloudt said that the agency is considering changing “low-performing” to “academically unacceptable.” The “acceptable” label would also change to “academically acceptable.”

The new labels for schools would match the labels that have been used for districts since the 1990s. “It’s a nice demarcation between the old system and the new system, I think,” she said.

Although some parts of the new system are still undecided, Dr. Cloudt will say this much: Parents should be ready for big drops at schools that were rated highly on the TAAS standard.

“I think it’ll be much harder to be exemplary, recognized and acceptable than in the old system,” she said.

Part of that difficulty stems from TAKS, a much more difficult test than its predecessor. Passing rates on the first TAKS exams in 2003 were generally 10 to 20 percentage points lower than on 2002’s TAAS.

But the Legislature also has added a series of new hurdles for schools to clear if they want to earn a good rating.

Among the new ratings criteria:

*How well did schools work with kids who failed last year’s TAKS? Did their scores improve this year?

*Did the school’s overall passing rate go up or down?

*How did special education students perform on the state’s alternative assessment?

It remains unclear what standards schools will have to meet on these and other new measures. “It’s a much more complex, complicated system,” Dr. Cloudt said.

State officials will probably phase in the accountability system over time, making a good rating harder to achieve as the years pass by. When the last accountability system debuted in 1994, just 25 percent of a school’s students had to pass TAAS for the school to be “acceptable.” That number climbed steadily as the system aged; by 2002, the state required a 55 percent passing rate.

Whatever the new requirements, local superintendents said they’ll adjust.

“Regardless of what the standards are going to be, we’re doing what we can to get every kid to pass,” said Duncanville Superintendent Jerry Cook. “It is somewhat frustrating not to know what the standards are. But I don’t know if we could work any harder than we’re working.”