New ratings push many schools off top of ladder; TAKS results hurt suburbs, but changes lift low scorers

By Joshua Benton and Terrence Stutz
Staff Writers

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Suburban pride took a hit Thursday.

Across Texas, hundreds of schools used to being rated exemplary – the state’s top marker of quality – looked a little more middling when the state released its 2004 school ratings.

“I know many schools are very, very disappointed,” said Shirley Neeley, Texas’ education commissioner. “Their hearts are broken because many of their ratings dropped.”

Meanwhile, urban schools used to life at the bottom got a boost. That’s in part because of better academic performance. But it’s also because of two new wrinkles in the ratings system that excuse low scores at some schools.

The new ratings are the first based on the more-rigorous TAKS test and the first issued under a system with higher bars set for schools and districts.

The biggest pain is in the suburbs, where earning a top school rating had become as routine as a manicured lawn and a quiet cul-de-sac. Statewide, just 517 campuses were rated exemplary this time. In 2002 – the last year ratings were issued – 1,918 earned the title.

Irving was typical. Until Thursday’s announcement, 20 Irving schools were rated exemplary or recognized, the state’s second-highest rating. Now, only one recognized campus remains. Every other campus in the district dropped to acceptable.

“It is disappointing, sure,” Irving Superintendent Jack Singley said.

Dealing with change

Highland Park, the wealthiest district in North Texas, dropped from its traditional exemplary rating to recognized because of the test scores of its special education students. It’s the first time the district’s test scores have fallen short of exemplary since 1993.

State ratings serve as the main marker of quality for schools. Superintendents point to them with pride. Real estate agents use them to push houses. Parents evaluate educational options with them.

As ratings have improved over the last decade, many districts have made the one-word labels a centerpiece of their public image. Their Web sites and stationery proudly declare their status as “A Recognized District.” Some ask receptionists, when answering phones, to mention the district’s high rating even before saying “hello.”

This year’s lower ratings have left some districts with a public relations job to do.

“We can’t sweep that fact under the rug,” said Mark Thomas, spokesman for the Birdville district in Tarrant County, which dropped from recognized to acceptable. “It’s important to our community. The state has made it important.”

Mr. Thomas said he wasn’t sure what the district would do with the large banner outside district headquarters that promotes the formerly high ratings of the district and its schools.

In Highland Park, Superintendent Cathy Bryce posted a message on the district’s Web site explaining the reasons for the drop. “The bottom line for us is the quality of education that is offered in our schools,” she wrote. “That level of excellence has not changed.”

She also said Highland Park, in what has become a fall ritual for many districts, would appeal its rating to the Texas Education Agency on the basis that the state should consider the district’s overall strength.

Under the old ratings, all 17 traditional schools in Grapevine-Colleyville were considered exemplary. Now, only five are.

“It’s a source of pride,” said parent Darlene Bodish, speaking of the old exemplary status. “It’s on the Web site. They mention it at parent meetings.”

She said recognized – the new rating for most of the district’s schools – is still good. “It’s just that exemplary is wonderful,” Ms. Bodish said.

The new ratings are the first based on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which debuted in 2003 and replaced the easier Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. With TAKS came lower passing rates in most grades.

The new system also counts more tests in more subjects than the old ratings did. Science proved to be the downfall of many schools. The subject didn’t count toward ratings before this year.

Tripped up by science

In Collin County, administrators in Frisco, Allen, McKinney and Plano blamed science for their weaker performances, even though the state set lower standards for the science and math tests than for other subjects.

“We do not want to appear to be making excuses,” said Debra Nelson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Frisco, which dropped to acceptable because of low science scores. “However, I can’t help but believe this is a flawed system if missing one standard of 36 makes you acceptable.”

Middle and high schools were mostly likely to get snagged by the new system’s rules. Unlike the TAAS test, TAKS produces substantially higher failure rates for older children.

As a result, 11.4 percent of elementary schools statewide earned exemplary ratings. But only 1.3 percent of middle schools and 0.9 percent of high schools are exemplary.

The news was better in poorer-performing schools. In 2002, 166 schools were tagged with the state’s lowest label, low performing. This year, only 102 schools were labeled academically unacceptable, the state’s new name for low performing. In North Texas, schools in Dallas, Fort Worth, Garland and Grand Prairie got the label.

But those numbers would have been substantially higher if not for two new mechanisms to protect poor-performing schools from a low rating.

The first is called “required improvement.” It excuses poor scores if TEA determines that a school is making enough progress to meet current standards within two years.

For example, Wilmer-Hutchins High School scored poorly in math, with only 30 percent of students passing the TAKS. Normally, that would be low enough to be unacceptable.

But the school had done even worse in 2002: an 18 percent passing rate. The increase from 18 percent to 30 percent meant Wilmer-Hutchins High was pushed into acceptable territory despite its low scores.

Statewide, 50 schools that would have been unacceptable became acceptable through the required improvement provision.

The other “get out of jail free” card available to schools is called an exception. Under the old system, a low passing rate in just one student subgroup on one test was enough to earn a low rating. For instance, a school with a very low passing rate among Hispanic students on the math TAAS was automatically considered low performing – even if the school fared well in every other subgroup and every other subject.

But the new ratings system allows for exceptions under certain conditions. That means a low-scoring school can be excused from a few low passing rates and still be considered acceptable under certain conditions.

Statewide, 61 schools were rated acceptable even though they all scored poorly enough to be declared unacceptable. Of those, six are in Dallas. Fort Worth, Mesquite, Wilmer-Hutchins and Royse City each had one school make the “acceptable” cut as exceptions to the rule.

Nearly half of the state’s 274 independent charter schools avoided performance ratings. That’s because they were allowed to be evaluated under an alternative system that is still being developed. Two years ago, 89 of 230 charter schools were low-performing.

Parents can be excused for being confused about the new ratings. TEA released them one day after announcing that 199 Texas schools were considered poor performers under federal adequate yearly progress rules – a separate ratings system from the state system.

AYP and the state system share some characteristics, like being primarily based on test scores. But they differ in other ways, such as which students’ scores are counted and in what subjects. It’s possible for a school to fare well in AYP but not in the state system – or vice versa.

“It’s confusing,” said Suzanne Marchman, a TEA spokeswoman. “We feel like the state system is a very good gauge of schools. But that’s not to say AYP isn’t good, too.”

Staff writers Valerie Fields Hill, Kristen Holland, Mike Jackson and Russell Rian contributed to this report.