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For Some, School Ratings Change Increases the Worry

Austin ISD headquarters on W. 6th Street.
Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News
Austin ISD headquarters on W. 6th Street.

On Friday, the Texas Education Agency will publicly release its annual accountability ratings for the state’s 1,000-plus school districts. School officials always eye this day with nervous anticipation, but this year many are feeling more than a twinge of dread.

This will be the first year the official ratings — which categorize schools as “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable” based on academic performance — will not contain the mechanism known as the Texas Projection Measure since it was implemented in 2009.

Instead of using students’ actual scores on standardized tests, the ratings formula gauged students’ future test scores based on a campus-wide average, which boosted ratings statewide. For instance, in the 2009-10 school year, 245 schools were rated “unacceptable” with the projection measure factored in. Without it, 603 would have fallen into that category. So whether or not schools’ actual passing rates have changed, many school leaders will be forced to explain lower ratings to parents and taxpayers.

“Districts are facing this real dilemma,” said Jackie Lain, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards. “They have in some cases significantly lower accountability ratings they will have to explain to their community.”

Accountability ratings, so easily brandished on banners across campuses, are often the simplest way for administrators to communicate how their schools are performing, especially to voters who do not have children in their schools.

School officials will enter the new school year with $4 billion less in state revenue over the next biennium, and an additional $1.4 billion less in discretionary grants for programs like pre-kindergarten and dropout prevention. Many will try to approach their school boards and communities to raise local property tax rates to help cushion the blow. They are also transitioning to a complex new standardized testing system.

The education agency first indicated that it was considering discontinuing the projection measure last summer, after lawmakers and others in the education community said that the measure artificially raised ratings and allowed schools to count students as passing tests when they had not. After the public uproar, the agency decided to issue two side-by-side ratings, one with the measure factored in and one without.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again attacked the measure and unanimously voted against it during a spirited debate in the Texas House on a testing bill. Then Education Commissioner Robert Scott wrote a letter to administrators giving them the final word that the measure would not be included in the 2011 ratings in order “to preserve the integrity of the accountability system and public education as a whole.”

Ray Braswell, superintendent of the Denton Independent School District, said the late decision was difficult on his district, though he said he believed it was the right one. He said Denton ISD was making sure to find an “apples to apples” comparison across the ratings so parents could accurately gauge changes in test scores. “It will be a communication effort on our part,” he said.

Lain said schools will have to deliver a complicated message: that in most cases, it is not their achievement level that has changed but how the ratings are calculated that has. She said her organization was preparing materials to help schools deal with that, but that the lack of public explanation about how eliminating the measure would affect accountability ratings from the education agency has made that more difficult.

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston and vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, led the charge against the projection measure. He said he was not concerned about the transition because districts have known what to expect since they received both ratings last summer.

“The measure was only used for about two years, and so this is not an earth-shattering sort of change,” he said. “The ratings released show what students actually do, not what they were predicted to do.”

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.