TEA plan would fail more schools; 92 rated unacceptable now; number could climb over 1,000

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The number of “academically unacceptable” schools in Texas could grow by a factor of 10 under a tougher set of standards approved by a Texas Education Agency committee.

There are now 92 Texas schools labeled unacceptable, the state’s lowest rating. But if the proposed new rules had been in place last year, more than 1,100 schools would have earned the label and faced possible state intervention.

“We’re going to have to go after more schools,” said Sandy Kress, the former Dallas school board president and Bush adviser who is among the new standards’ supporters. “We’re going to have to go to a place we have not gone yet if we really want youngsters to succeed in these ineffective schools.”

But some educators question whether it’s a good idea to change the state ratings system for the expressed purpose of making some schools look worse.

“I think it’s setting up schools to fail,” said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the Arlington district. “I am a strong accountability supporter, but some people have this idea that just because something worked before that more of it will work better.”

The proposal – awaiting approval by Commissioner Shirley Neeley – would raise the TAKS passing rate required for a school to be academically acceptable.

For a school to be acceptable under current law, a school must have at least a 50 percent passing rate in reading, writing, and social studies, a 35 percent passing rate in math and a 25 percent passing rate in science.

10-point jump

According to the proposal approved Monday by the commissioner’s Accountability Advisory Committee, each of those passing rates would increase by 10 percentage points in 2006, and most would march up five more points each year until 2010.

“We can’t be happy with half the students not passing,” said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of governance services for the Texas Association of School Boards and a member of the advisory committee.

The higher required passing rates alone will knock hundreds of schools from the ranks of the acceptable to “academically unacceptable” – the state’s new term for what used to be called “low performing.”

But when combined with other changes already planned to debut in the next year – like a higher passing standard on the TAKS and new restrictions on how schools calculate their dropout rate – the number of newly unacceptable schools could be staggering.

TEA officials haven’t yet estimated how large that number is. That’s because the advisory committee’s recommendations were more extreme than any of the proposals TEA staff had prepared for.

Under the most extreme proposal TEA researched, 1,100 Texas schools would have been rated unacceptable last year. The advisory committee’s proposal would likely tack several hundred more onto that total because it requires higher passing standards in four of the five TAKS subjects.

Hardest hit would likely be the state’s large urban districts, like Dallas and Houston, where dozens of schools would likely be considered unacceptable under the tougher standards.

Those estimates all assume that test scores in 2006 – when the changes would take effect – will be the same as they were in 2004, the last year of complete data. That’s unlikely, since test scores tend to go up every year as schools figure out how to improve performance.

But no matter how fast the improvement, it’s likely these changes would result in a record number of schools being labeled unacceptable. Since the debut of the school ratings system in 1994, the number of low-ranked schools usually has been 100 or fewer.

“I worry about the pressure we’re putting on children and on educators in this state,” said Michael Motheral, superintendent of Sundown schools in the Panhandle. “It’s somewhat inevitable when you have a system that rates kids and schools. But there’s going to be some heartache if we move at this pace.”

Mr. Motheral sits on TEA’s Educator Focus Group on Accountability, a group of school administrators who also advise the commissioner on school ratings issues. His group recommended a slightly smaller change – only increasing required passing rates by five points next year instead of 10.

“I think everybody wants to make sure the kids are challenged,” said Billy Espino, a principal in Fort Stockton who also sits on the educator focus group. “But we also don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

But Mr. Kress said the Texas system needs to be more aggressive about identifying weak schools. He cited one high school where nearly three-quarters of students failed at least one section of the TAKS last year – but was still rated acceptable.

Mr. Kress, who sits on the 27-member advisory committee recommending the 10 percentage-point jump, said he would be happy with a system that identified about one in 10 Texas schools as underachievers each year. (Texas has about 7,700 public schools in total.) Schools have generally done better than expected on the TAKS test since the test’s debut in 2003, and that’s pushing many to advocate tougher standards.

Dr. Bernd, the Arlington superintendent, disagrees. “We shouldn’t assume that when people are doing well the standard’s too low,” he said. “The standards ought to be based on how much we want students to learn, not some pre-set idea of how many schools should fail.”

He also said he believed raising standards too quickly would encourage some educators to cheat on state tests.

Possible penalties

Schools that are rated unacceptable for multiple years are subject to a number of sanctions, including stiff state intervention. Under some proposals being considered in the Legislature, schools that remain unacceptable for several years could be subject to private management.

The debate over passing rates partly is being governed by federal law. The No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, requires all schools to march their passing rates steadily north toward 100 percent by 2014. The proposed tougher state standards largely mirror the passing rates required by the federal law.

Now Dr. Neeley will have to decide whether to accept the more ambitious proposals of her advisory committee or the more modest recommendations of her educator focus group – or do something else entirely. On one hand, political and business figures generally want standards to get tougher quickly. On the other, superintendents – aware of the power of a poor label – generally favor a slower approach.

“It is really tricky,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “You want to set goals that are challenging but reachable for most schools. We’ve got some people saying the system’s not hard enough and some saying don’t go too fast.”

Dr. Neeley is expected to make her decision in the next few weeks.