New School Accountability Ratings: Still Viewing Schools Through a Distorting Lens

The Texas Education Agency on Friday afternoon issued 2011 accountability ratings for school districts and campuses that show a sharp drop in the number of campuses rated exemplary and a sharp increase in the number of campuses rated academically unacceptable.

The number of exemplary campuses dropped more than half, from 2,637 in 2010 to 1,224 in 2011 (a decline from 31.3 percent of all campuses to 14.4 percent). The number of academically unacceptable campuses went up more than fivefold—from 104 campuses in 2010 to 569 this year (a jump from 1.2 percent to 6.7 percent).

Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said today that factors contributing to these adverse trends included higher required passing rates for math and science and a huge increase in the number of special-education students whose scores were included in the data (119,000 more students, moving the percentage of special-ed students covered from 54 percent last year to 92 percent this year).

As the commissioner also noted, the Texas school accountability rating system was tweaked this year to eliminate a distortion that gave districts and campuses credit for some students’ projected future performance rather than their actual scores on state tests. Predictably, the result has been lower ratings for many districts and schools.

“Removing the ill-conceived Texas Projection Measure was the right thing to do,” said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges in a press statement on the new ratings. “But let’s not kid ourselves:  The removal of that one distortion does not mean the school ratings now all of a sudden give a true picture of schools’ effectiveness.”

In fact, the current ratings capture only a fragmentary snapshot of what Texas schools accomplish and don’t include a growth measure. “A growth measure, unlike the snapshot we have now, would gauge how much a student’s demonstrated knowledge and skill have increased over time,” Bridges said.

Bridges stressed that the state achievement tests cover a limited range of subject matter, failing to reflect much of what we ask our schools to teach. And districts and schools can be and often are downgraded under the state rating scheme even when the vast majority of their students are doing well but a handful are falling short of state passing standards in one subject or have a lower attendance rate.

“Business leaders have marveled at the absurdity of this system, testifying at the legislature that nowhere in private industry is a whole enterprise judged like this, by the performance of its lowest-performing division,” Bridges said. “With all these flaws, the current system reducing district and school ratings to a one-word label still distorts reality as much or more than the abandoned Texas Projection Measure.”

She noted that when you layer on top of this inadequate state rating system the even more flawed federal ratings of “adequate yearly progress,” what you have is less a true picture of school performance than a distorting hall of mirrors. The system at both the state and federal levels is in urgent need of repair, she said.

“Pending those repairs, before you buy into the ratings published today, remember this basic advice to consumers:  Let the buyer beware,” Bridges said.

Texas AFT testified in the legislature last spring against the continued use of the Texas Projection Measure for school ratings. But Texas AFT’s critique of the accountability rating system went much deeper.

“The whole system needs, if not an extreme makeover, at least a major overhaul,” Bridges said. “We need a rating system that reflects more fully the broad range of what we ask our students to know and do. The system needs to give credit for genuine year-to-year improvement that reflects where students started, not just where they finished.  We need a reformed system that aims to ‘diagnose and correct,’ not ‘test and punish.’  We also need to face up to the resource issue. Our students and schools are caught in the undertow of a grossly inequitable and inadequate system of school funding that is getting worse, even as high-need, economically disadvantaged students become the supermajority in our public schools.”