August 2, 2008
Ratings Rise on Student Gains, Reprieve From Tougher Rules
By Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle
Aug. 1--Higher test scores helped more Texas schools and districts earn top academic ratings this year, but hundreds were spared lower marks thanks to special breaks granted by the Texas Education Agency, according to data released Friday.
The Houston Independent School District, the biggest in Texas, nearly doubled its number of high-rated campuses and maintained its overall "acceptable" rating -- thanks to a break from the TEA.
"Today is the day to celebrate," HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said during a pep rally complete with cheerleaders and confetti. "Our students have made enormous academic progress."
HISD -- along with 75 other districts statewide, including Alief, Dallas, Galveston, Humble, North Forest, Pasadena and Tomball -- would have landed on the unacceptable list if they had been held accountable for high school graduation or middle school dropout rates this year. Galena Park would have remained acceptable.
Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott agreed for the second consecutive year not to downgrade district or school ratings based solely on poor dropout or graduation rates. The state switched to a tougher calculation last year, and school superintendents asked for more time to adjust.
Scott said the new standards will apply next year.
"We have provided fair notice," he said, acknowledging that Texas has "a significant dropout problem."
Statewide, the number of districts rated "exemplary" -- the highest status -- grew from 27 to 43, and the number of top-rated schools increased from 643 last year to 996.
The number of "unacceptable" districts fell from 56 to 37, while the number of low-rated schools dropped from 276 to 217. Math and science performance continued to be the weak spot for many.
The largest chunk of schools, nearly 43 percent, were rated "acceptable." The standards for that rating were a little tougher in most subjects this year.
Education researchers caution that the improved ratings might not necessarily mean students are learning more; they might just be getting better at taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams.
"What we don't know is why the TAKS scores go up," said Ed Fuller, a research associate at the University of Texas' College of Education in Austin. "A cynic would say, 'Everybody learns to teach to the test, the kids get better at taking that particular test and scores go up, so schools receive better ratings.' "
The ratings -- which can influence where parents buy homes and whether principals keep their jobs -- are based primarily on TAKS exams in math, reading/language arts, writing, science and social studies.
Scott said he does not believe the higher scores can be attributed to teachers and students simply getting used to the TAKS test, which began in 2003.
Characterizing the TAKS as a "significantly" more difficult test, Scott said, "I think anybody who has achieved (higher) ratings has earned it."
HISD boasted that nearly 60 percent of its campuses earned the state's top two ratings, a better rate than the Austin, Dallas, San Antonio or El Paso districts.
The number of unacceptable campuses in HISD remained the same at 15, though most were not repeat offenders. Ten high schools and five middle schools avoided the lowest rating thanks to the dropout and graduation rate waivers.
HISD's Lamar High School became the first comprehensive high school in the district to earn a "recognized" rating, though it also benefited from the waiver. Many of HISD's specialty high schools have earned top ratings in the past.
Clear Creek and Friends-wood maintained their "recognized" ratings, as did YES Prep Public Schools, a popular charter school chain.
Dekaney High School in Spring, which opened last fall, got tagged with an "academically unacceptable" rating.
North Forest held onto its "acceptable" rating, and its number of "unacceptable" campuses dropped from five to two. Oak Village Middle School, which faced closure if its test scores did not improve enough, came off the unacceptable list. The low-rated campuses were the two high schools, which will be consolidated under one roof this fall.
News of the academic gains in the northeast Houston district came one day after Scott announced a plan to oust the elected school board and appoint his own board of managers, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. Scott cited serious financial concerns as his main reason for the drastic move.
To earn an "exemplary" rating, at least 90 percent of students must pass the TAKS in each subject. Schools must meet the standard for all students and for individual subgroups: Anglos, blacks, Hispanics and children from low-income families.
But for the first time this year, schools could earn the highest or second-highest rating even if they did not meet all the targets. The TEA traditionally has allowed the so-called "exceptions" only for the lower rating categories.
Put simply, the TEA allows schools and districts a certain number of free passes if they come close to the passing standard -- within 5 percentage points in most subjects. In math and science, schools can fall 10 points short and still earn an "acceptable" rating.
Ninety districts and 832 campuses benefited from at least one exception this year. Of those, eight districts and 177 schools used an exemption to reach "exemplary."
TEA officials defend the exceptions, explaining that big-city districts deserve some leeway because their schools typically have more diverse student populations than smaller suburban districts, which might have students of only one race.
"A diverse urban school district has to meet more indicators -- or essentially has more hurdles -- than a homogenous, smaller school or district," TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said.
To be rated "acceptable," at least 70 percent of students had to pass the reading/language arts exam; 65 percent had to pass the writing and social studies exams; 50 percent had to pass math; and 45 percent had to pass science.
Chronicle reporter Jennifer Radcliffe and San Antonio Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer contributed to this story.
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