COLUMN: Ratings confuse you? Just wait

Good news for those of you who think determining the quality of your school is just too darned easy.

It’s probably about to get more complicated.

A state focus group has recommended that the Texas Education Agency add three new school ratings, starting this fall: Exemplary Commended, Recognized Commended, and Academically Acceptable Commended.

Those would join: the four major existing ratings (Exemplary, Recognized, Academically Acceptable, Academically Unacceptable); the Data Integrity Issues rating for schools potentially on the make; the separate-but-equal Alternative Education Accountability system; the Adequate Yearly Progress system the feds require (including its more heavy-duty Needs Improvement tag); the 14 Gold Performance Acknowledgements the state gives out (for things like SAT scores and attendance rates); all the different honor rolls and five-star schools lists promoted by various groups; and a TAKS-taking partridge in a pear tree.

(Deep breath.)

It almost makes you hearken back to the traditional way of evaluating a Texas school’s quality: the record of its football team. […]

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COLUMN: Schools not all to blame

As I type these words, I have an excruciating toothache. And it’s made me realize that we blame schools too much for our children’s problems.

(Keep reading. That’ll make sense eventually.)

Earlier this month, a research arm of UNICEF issued a report dryly titled, “An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries.” Its goal was to measure how children in 21 well-off nations – mostly the U.S., plus much of Europe – compared with one another. It took dozens of measures from each of the countries and compiled them into a series of ratings.

The results were pretty miserable for fans of the Stars and Stripes.

Overall, children in the United States finished 20th, beating out only Great Britain.

Gather the torches and pitchforks, right? That sort of pathetic showing surely must be the fault of lazy teachers, incompetent principals and administration bureaucrats!

Not quite. Actually, in the one UNICEF rating that schools have some impact on – what the study calls “educational well-being” – America does OK. Not great, mind you, but our 12th-place showing in schooling was easily the best we did in any category. […]

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TEA official’s ouster planned; Documents show effort to remove TEA employee who oversaw test

When the state employee in charge of the TAKS test resigned last month, the official word was that she would be missed.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley called Lisa Chandler “a tremendous asset to the field” and said her exit was “a great loss for the agency.” A Texas Education Agency representative said that Ms. Chandler’s departure was of her own volition and that the agency was happy with her performance.

But documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News tell a different tale. They show that her departure was engineered by Dr. Neeley herself. At least as far back as November, top agency officials were planning to remove Ms. Chandler because of complaints from school districts, other TEA officials and her own staff.

The documents include typed and handwritten notes by Tom Shindell, an agency human resources official, from meetings both before and after Ms. Chandler was pushed out. They provide a unique window into TEA’s efforts to remove her from her post.

“Was I a scapegoat?” Ms. Chandler asks at one point, after she’s been told to leave. Then later: “Where was the due process?”

Ms. Chandler has since found new work – with Pearson, the company that produces the TAKS test and whose $279 million contract with TEA Ms. Chandler managed. Pearson officials have said her work with the company will not involve the Texas contract. […]

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Advocate for school vouchers plans to make a public push

Saying he is tired of being labeled a “caveman” and a “recluse,” voucher supporter Jim Leininger is ready for a public relations offensive.

“I think I have a moral responsibility not to stick my head in the sand,” he said Thursday in a meeting with The Dallas Morning News editorial board.

Dr. Leininger and a group of supporters are on the stump to push a voucher pilot program that they expect will be proposed in the current legislative session.

The San Antonio businessman funds two scholarship programs for poor public-school students in San Antonio, the first of which began in 1992. He has been an active supporter of voucher programs, which would be similar to his but funded with state tax dollars.

In past years, his support for the cause has come primarily in supporting candidates for the Legislature; Dr. Leininger has mostly stayed silent. But a number of candidates he supported lost in November – despite more than $4 million in donations by Dr. Leininger – and he said he is shifting to a more public role to sell the program to citizens. That includes radio spots and billboards in urban areas.

“The politics of school choice are kind of toxic, but the merits, we think, are compelling,” said his spokesman, Ken Hoagland. […]

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COLUMN: Changing to single-member system can boost diversity

I suspect this column wins my all-time Most Likely To Generate 3,000 Angry E-mails Prize, so I’ll start out with a few disclaimers.

I’m not calling anybody a racist. I’m not saying anybody is acting out of malice. I’m not even saying anyone is being unreasonable.

But these are the facts:

Irving’s student body is 19.5 percent white. Irving’s school board is 100 percent white.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s student body is 27.9 percent white. Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s school board is 100 percent white.

Lake Worth’s student body is 39.2 percent white. Lake Worth’s school board is 100 percent white.

And the imbalance in those numbers is almost entirely attributable to the way those districts elect school board members.

There are a thousand different ways to run an election, but most districts use some variation of one of two methods. […]

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State loses TAKS chief to firm that produces test; Rules will keep her from working on Texas issues until 2010

The state official in charge of the TAKS test has a new employer: the company that produces the test.

Lisa Chandler, the Texas Education Agency’s director of assessment, will join the testing giant Pearson on March 5. She resigned from her state position Dec. 29, saying only that she was considering several job offers in the private sector.

TEA’s contract with Pearson – a five-year, $279 million deal signed in 2005 – puts limits on any agency employees who move to the company. The contract bans them from working on Texas-related matters for 12 months after the switch. A separate state ethics rule would prevent Ms. Chandler from working on the TEA contract until it is up for renewal in 2010.

Ms. Chandler could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ms. Chandler has been Pearson’s main contact at the agency since she became assessment director in 2003. She has worked at the agency in a variety of roles since 1986. Her search for private employment had been the subject of rumors at the agency for some time. […]

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State ready to crack down on teachers who cheat; Rules prioritize offenses, help alert other districts

The state’s chief regulator of teachers is increasing the priority it places on policing cheating on the TAKS test.

A new set of rules, approved by the State Board for Educator Certification this month, will devote more resources to investigating teachers suspected of doctoring student answers. The rules would also make it easier for school districts to know whether someone applying for a job is suspected of cheating in another district.

“There’s no point in giving a TAKS test if we can’t know the results of that test are the true reflection of a child’s knowledge,” said Bonnie Cain, the superintendent of Pearland schools and the state board’s acting president. “There’s no good in having a test if it doesn’t have integrity.”

The changes come after a Dallas Morning News story in October that found problems with the way schools were informed of the findings of a state investigation into cheating in the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins district.

That investigation identified 22 educators who it said “were involved in testing irregularities,” like giving students answer keys or doctoring test documents.

At least 10 of those educators quickly found jobs in other districts, many of which had no knowledge of the findings until informed by The News. […]

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W-H official cited in inquiry; Ex-principal’s lawyer denies wrongdoing in TAKS cheating scandal

The investigation into TAKS cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools is moving up the district’s chain of command.

Jatis McCollister, the former principal of Alta Mesa Elementary, knew that cheating was going on and that the school’s high test scores were unearned, according to a complaint filed by officials in a state administrative court on Friday.

She is the first administrator in the defunct school district to be targeted, but she may not be the last. State officials said that a number of other district and campus officials could face sanction hearings before a state judge in the coming months, both for TAKS cheating and falsifying attendance data to generate more money from the state.

“If you take on the role of being the leader of a campus, that comes with responsibilities,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

“It’s your duty to ensure there isn’t this sort of wrongdoing on your campus.”

Ms. McCollister’s attorney, Daniel Ortiz, said she was innocent of all claims in the complaint.

“Ms. McCollister is a longtime Texas educator who enjoys an outstanding record,” he said. “She’s done nothing wrong.”

An earlier state investigation found that 22 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers and other staff members had changed student answers, distributed answer keys and otherwise helped give test scores a false boost on the 2004 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. […]

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TEA may create system to hunt TAKS cheaters; Criticism of private firm spurs call for agency to analyze scores itself

Unhappy with the way an outside company did the job, the Texas Education Agency appears ready to take on the hunt for cheaters itself.

An agency task force has recommended that TEA build its own system for analyzing scores on the TAKS test to look for suspicious patterns.

But it could be another year or more before the system is ready.

Until then, it appears likely that testing data will go unscrutinized.

“Investigating these anomalies a year or two later is very difficult,” said Michael Donley, the agency’s inspector general. “I have a feeling that old data will be skipped.”

The recommendation is one of 10 made by the state’s test-security task force, which was formed last fall.

An agency spokesperson said Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley was broadly supportive of the recommendations, although details about implementation remain to be worked out.

The task force’s conclusions come as it finishes an unusual investigation into 700 schools whose scores on the 2005 test were flagged as suspicious by the Utah test-security firm Caveon. Nearly 600 of those schools were recently cleared by TEA – most of them solely on the basis of a questionnaire sent to school officials about their testing practices. […]

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Column: Some educated guesses about ’07

The first prediction I can remember making came two decades ago, in 1987. My beloved New Orleans Saints, after a full generation of losing, were somehow 12-3 and in the playoffs for the first time.

Drunk on unfamiliar success, I made a bold proclamation: “The Saints will make the Super Bowl this year!”

Didn’t turn out that way. (Minnesota 44, New Orleans 10. A sad, sad day for this sixth-grader.)

But despite that unfortunate start, the opening of a new year brings out the prognosticator in all of us. Therefore, I give you my five predictions for what 2007 will bring to the world of Texas public education.

* The first real signs of pushback against testing in Austin.

The state accountability system – based first on the TAAS test and now the TAKS – has enjoyed broad political support in both parties over the years. But that support has never fully trickled down to the general public – particularly parents and educators.

Last fall, three candidates for governor railed against the test. Kinky Friedman wanted to kill it entirely. Chris Bell attacked “the tyranny of the TAKS” and said its stakes shouldn’t be so high. Even Carole Keeton Strayhorn wanted to move the test from spring to fall so it would be more a diagnostic test and less an accountability mechanism.

Of course, all three lost. But each noticed a wave of anti-testing sentiment among voters – and was eager to ride it. […]

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