TEA gets excuses, excuses; State finds merit in 62 school rating appeals, creativity in others

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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None actually claimed a dog ate their homework.

But the Texas schools that appealed their subpar state ratings this year offered up a remarkable variety of explanations and excuses – some sensible, others more notable for their creativity.

Schools blamed their performance on everything from an errant fire alarm to a student going into labor – and, in one case, parent sabotage.

“There are certainly some appeals that we think have very little merit,” said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability at the Texas Education Agency. “But we look at each one closely.”

In all, 160 schools or districts appealed their ratings this year – a fraction of the more than 9,000 ratings TEA hands out annually. The agency approved 62 appeals, often moving a school one rung up the ratings ladder: unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of each district’s appeals letter and the agency’s yea-or-nay response.

The state ratings system is based largely on the TAKS test scores of specific subgroups such as black, Hispanic, white and low-income students. A school must produce a given passing rate in each group to earn a certain rating.

Every year, hundreds of schools fall just a few students short of the bar. And many start searching for ways to massage the numbers.

One way is to play with racial boundaries – squeezing students from one subgroup to another.

For instance, Houston’s North Forest ISD appealed the ratings of seven schools, all of which received the lowest possible rating, academically unacceptable. One campus, Kirby Middle School, fell short because of poor performance among Hispanic students in reading and writing.

In its appeal, North Forest argued that several passing students who had been counted as black were actually Hispanic – just enough to edge Hispanic passing rates above the state’s bar.

TEA rejected that claim – along with all of North Forest’s appeals. In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley noted that two of the allegedly Hispanic students had been counted as black each of the previous seven years.

“We can go back and check. They can’t just make a change just for this year,” Dr. Cloudt said.

Other schools look for ways to remove failing students from the data. Gilmore Elementary School in Clear Creek ISD fell one passing student short of exemplary, so it argued for eliminating the scores of a student who “was exhibiting violent behavior” in the weeks leading up to test day.

The school tested him anyway. But after seeing his scores, officials decided that “in retrospect, this may not have been in [the student’s] best interest.” TEA rejected that argument.

A plea for maternity

Instead of removing a failing student, Fort Worth Can! Academy tried to create a passing one. The charter school was rated academically unacceptable – but it was only one student short of acceptable. One teenage girl was set to take the state test for special-education students but went into labor before she could. The school argued that it should be able to count her as a passing student.

“Our campus is in the unique position of being on the teetering point” of being acceptable, Superintendent Robert Ward wrote. TEA rejected the appeal.

At Jane Long Middle School in Bryan, a fire alarm went off during the social studies TAKS exam. Bryan officials argued that the alarm had distracted the school’s black students, whose scores had fallen short of the acceptable bar.

TEA officials denied the claim, pointing out that the majority of students had performed better in social studies than the year before. “This indicates the inability to focus was not widespread,” Dr. Neeley wrote.

Some mercy shown

State officials announce preliminary school ratings in early August each year. Schools have about two weeks to come up with an appeal, and TEA spends more than a month checking the facts and determining which should be approved. A three-person outside panel makes recommendations, which are then sent to Dr. Neeley for the final say.

“With a very high-stakes accountability system, I think we have to take care evaluating every appeal and to look at the legitimacy of what they’re appealing,” Dr. Cloudt said. “It’s important for the credibility of the system that people know we will listen to what they have to say and evaluate it as fairly as we can.”

A handful of schools that didn’t like their students’ grades on essays simply asked for new scores. TEA allows districts to appeal to the state’s testing company, NCS Pearson, for another read of essays they feel deserved higher grades.

Angleton ISD, for example, asked for three students’ essays to be reviewed. NCS Pearson raised one grade, which was enough to push Westside Elementary from recognized to exemplary.

“Grading writing is obviously a very subjective process,” said Angleton Superintendent Heath Burns. “Did Westside receive extra attention because they missed their mark? Probably so.”

Some districts laid no claim to grading errors – they simply asked for mercy.

Midlothian ISD would have been rated recognized had it not been for its black students’ scores in math. Districtwide, 59 out of 94 black students passed; the district needed 61. Midlothian’s appeal argued that the recognized label better fit the district than the acceptable tag TEA had assigned.

“I just felt like I had to bring that to their attention, how close we were,” said Judy Walling, Midlothian’s assistant superintendent for instruction, who crafted the appeal.

The appeal was denied, although Dr. Neeley wrote that she was “sympathetic.”

In some cases, districts had only each other to blame for ratings woes.

Last year, one student left Harwell Middle School in Edinburg and transferred to a public school in McAllen. But McAllen officials forgot to mention the student’s existence in its regular enrollment reports to the state.

As a result, that student was counted as a dropout – and Harwell Middle was rated unacceptable because it had exactly one more dropout than was allowed. Harwell’s appeal was granted.

But another Edinburg school wasn’t as lucky. Esparza Elementary School fell short of recognized status because one too many low-income students failed the science test.

The district argued that one of those failing students shouldn’t have been considered poor because the student’s father had gotten a new job that paid more. The district even sent the father’s pay schedules to TEA in an attempt to have its rating boosted. TEA didn’t bite.

Parental interference?

Perhaps the most extreme one-student appeal came in Rio Vista ISD, near Cleburne. A fourth-grader who consistently got good grades had answered “A” to every multiple-choice question on a practice TAKS test. According to school officials, the student’s parents had encouraged the child to sabotage the TAKS.

“My mom says [the principal] and the school are rewarded for doing well on the TAKS test and they shouldn’t be rewarded because they haven’t done a good job,” the child told a teacher. According to the appeal, that student was the difference between acceptable and recognized.

TEA denied the appeal. It did not rule on how the child’s test should be counted, but it pointed out that the school would still have fallen just short of recognized.

One thing all the appeals had in common: They sought a higher rating.

Dr. Cloudt said she remembered only one case, several years ago, when a district argued for its rating to be lowered.

“Somebody wrote in and said: ‘We shouldn’t have been recognized. We should have been acceptable,'” she said.

She couldn’t remember which district that was.