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STAAR

Higher standards mean lower ratings

Schools across the state have seen their academic ratings drop as a result of changes made in how the Texas Education Agency computes them.

The new accountability ratings released Friday for public school campuses in the state’s 1,228 districts and charter schools present a “far more accurate look” at academic performance, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said.

They are also markedly lower — with far fewer schools achieving the highest ratings than last year. Instead, most schools fall in the middle “acceptable” category.

Many districts find themselves with lower ratings even though their student achievement has remained the same. That’s because the formula used to calculate the ratings, based primarily on students’ standardized test scores, no longer includes a mechanism called the Texas Projection Measure. The TPM gauged students’ future test scores based on a campus-wide average instead of using their actual test scores and had the effect of giving schools credit for students passing when they hadn’t.

In April, Scott announced he would discontinue the measure after state lawmakers took a unanimous vote against it during debate on a testing bill.

The Chron gives the local picture.

In the Houston Independent School District, the “unacceptable” campuses more than tripled to 25 — or 9 percent of its rated schools.

Statewide, about 7 percent of schools netted the lowest rating this year. The unacceptable list grew from 104 schools to 569.

[…]

The ratings, from best to worst, are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, honored last year as the state’s largest “recognized” district, dropped to “acceptable.” HISD, the biggest district, also was “acceptable.”

Among the area’s other large districts, Katy, Pasadena, Conroe, Alief, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Galena Park and Pearland earned “recognized” status.

You can see ratings for all HISD schools here, and for all school districts in Texas here. It is important to remember that last year’s ratings were basically bogus. If you do keep that in mind, HISD actually showed some improvement.

The news that Houston ISD’s number of exemplary schools dropped from 101 in 2010 to 59 in 2011, according to the Texas Education Agency’s figures just released at 1 p.m. today, could only add more fuel to the fire of critics who are certain Superintendent Terry Grier is destroying HISD.

Except that if the now discarded and discredited Texas Projection Measure (a method of giving extra points to schools by predicting that certain kids who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills actually would pass in the next year) was removed from last year’s results, and other new “accountability measures” were factored in, according to HISD, then in 2010 there were 46 HISD schools that were really exemplary.

Which would make this year — at least in the exemplary category — an improvement. And Terry Grier a hero (or at least not a complete goat)?

Elsewhere in the annual ratings, the number of HISD’s academically recognized schools in 2011 was 106 (107 last year with the TPM), and academically acceptable increased to 79 (from 49 with TPM).

The number of academically unacceptable schools soared to 21 from last year’s 7 — but HISD’s recalculation last year’s effort says it would have been 23 — so hey, put another one in the win column.

In addition to the dropping of TPM, there were other ways in which the accountability system was made more difficult. Special ed kids were counted for the first time, and the standards for kids with limited English proficiency and math scores were raised. And before you get too used to this new/old way of scoring things, get ready for them to change again.

This is the last year for the TAKS testing program, which began in 2003. Schools will get a one-year reprieve from ratings as students take the new exams, expected to be more challenging.

Test scores traditionally rise over the years as teachers and students get used to the format of an exam. Statewide, at least 90 percent of students passed the TAKS in reading, writing and social studies this year. At least 80 percent passed in math and science.

HISD saw its scores remain mostly flat this year. The district’s passing rate in math rose two points to 83 percent, while writing dropped two points to 91 percent.

“Schools have a pretty good routine based on the TAKS,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who chairs the House Public Education Committee. “It will change when we get to the (new) end-of-course exams and the STAAR tests.”

The forthcoming STAAR standard is already causing a lot of anxiety in school districts. The good news for Houston teachers is that they will be cut some slack in their evaluations.

​In a startling reversal of previous statements and his own avowed philosophies, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier today released a statement that he will recommend to the school board that teachers not be evaluated by their students’ test scores this next school year.

It was only in May that trustees — urged on by Grier — voted 7-2 (Carol Galloway and Juliet Stipeche dissenting) to include student test scores in the formal list of criteria used to evaluate a teacher’s performance.

The May vote came after several months of entreaty from HISD teachers who argued that it would be especially inappropriate this coming year to judge teachers on their students’ test scores given that the state was introducing a new standardized test system that is replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. (Historically, student test scores drop after a new test is adopted.)

But Grier and his administration had remained adamant that it was inconceivable that the district have this information — student test scores — and not use it to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. They have repeatedly said that teachers are the most crucial element in whether a child succeeds or fails in school.

It is difficult to understand what new information became available in the two months since May that would change Grier’s position on this. In his statement, he references “feedback we’ve heard this summer from teachers about taking on these challenges,” but he certainly heard plenty of this feedback before school was out.

Better late than never. How did your school do?

Lege loosens graduation requirements

A sign of the times.

The Texas House tentatively approved legislation Wednesday to make it easier for high school students to pass end-of-course exams, a move critics called “a substantial retreat” from school accountability.

“This bill creates a clear, understandable path to graduation,” House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said of his bill, HB 500.

Business and education reform groups complained the legislation would weaken efforts to make sure all high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

Here’s HB500, which received final passage by a 138-5 margin on Thursday. Here’s the Trib on some key aspects of the bill:

The idea behind Eissler’s bill is to provide a transition period for students as schools move from the TAKS to the STAAR tests — whose more rigorous standards some believe could lead to large numbers of students failing to meet graduation requirements. Right now, students can’t graduate unless they get a certain cumulative score across all the year-end tests. Fifteen percent of their final grades is based on how well they do on those tests. HB 500 does away with those requirements, instead allowing districts to set their own policy on how end-of-course exams weigh in student assessment. Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said his bill was about “trying to get out of the micromanaging of school business from Austin” and vehemently denied accusations from his colleagues that it weakened school standards.

Three amendments from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, were adopted from the floor. One prevented double-testing for fifth and eighth grade students taking advanced courses. Another, in an allusion to this summer’s Texas Projection Measure kerfuffle, specified that the Texas Education Agency could not use a projected achievement level to measure student growth. The last allows districts to opt into a pilot program to study whether students are “overtested.” Hochberg said that there is “pretty clear data” that show that if students pass a test one year, they are more than likely to pass it the next. “If we know they are going to pass that test, why are we going to continue to test them?” he asked. (Hochberg’s HB 233, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would implement this policy statewide.)

I’ve blogged about HB233 before. It’s a good idea. Abby Rapoport has some more details and context.

School districts had fought for the bill—House Bill 500—which was carried by Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. But amendments prompted heated discussions about just what role testing should play in school assessments. And the coalitions for and against were anything but predictable.

The measure centered around the new STAAR tests, the soon-to-be-implemented statewide school assessments set to replace the current TAKS tests. Eissler’s bill would give school districts an opportunity to cut students some slack while students adjust to the new testing system. If the districts so chose, for a transitional period, a student’s STARR test performance wouldn’t necessarily count toward their final grade in a course. Districts could set their own policy on just how much the assessments count for a student’s grade. The bill also allows districts to suspend a new graduation requirement that students maintain a cumulative passing rate on 12 exams in four subject areas. Instead students would only have to pass four exams total—English III and algebra, specifically as well as one in science and one in social studies.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion of this bill yet. Mostly, I agree with Rapoport in that this bill won’t have nearly the effect on student performance that the budget will. Maybe when we’re at a point of fully funding education again, we can revisit this and see if it’s still needed. Until then, the budget is the cause and everything else is effects.

Should we do away with school police forces?

Grits makes the case.

If public school budgets will be radically cut in Texas, a prospect which for the moment appears all but inevitable, which employees should be eliminated first? Judging from the ongoing debate, maybe campus cops. Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman describes some of the debates surrounding school budgets thusly:

One of the most important dividing lines in the discussion about the state’s budget crisis separates those who think Texas schools need more money and those who think schools just need to make better spending decisions.

Those in the second group have some powerful numbers on their side. In a December report, Comptroller Susan Combs found that per-student spending increased 63 percent over the previous decade. That growth rate was nearly twice as fast as inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, and it points to a Texas school system that isn’t starving for cash.

Another statistic in wide circulation these days says Texas school districts employ about as many nonteachers as teachers. This has led many to suggest that, even as lawmakers consider billions of dollars’ worth of funding cuts to schools, local education officials can balance the books without shedding teachers.

I’ve not seen hard data, but based on anecdotal accounts I’d suggest that the growing number and size of school-based police forces likely account for a big chunk of growth among nonteacher school employees in the last decade. Shouldn’t they be among the first to get the budget axe? They’re the only sizable class of school employees we know for sure they can do without because schools did so for most of their history in Texas and elsewhere. The phenomenon of campus-based police departments is something that’s really only arisen en masse in the last 20 or so years in Texas public schools.

He notes that Sen. John Whitmire has advocated greatly reducing the amount of tickets that school cops write, which would fit well with this idea. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of savings in this – as I reported before, according the HISD Trustee Anna Eastman, HISD budgets $13.5 million for its police force, of which 95% is personnel costs. That ain’t nothing – it’s 270 teachers, assuming $50K per year in salaries – but it’s less than eight percent of the optimistic-case $171 million projected shortfall. Maybe it would be more in some other ISDs, I don’t know. I think there’s merit to the idea, and not just for budgetary reasons, I’m just trying to keep perspective on it. What do you think?

On a side note, I can’t leave this subject without pointing you to Martha’s posts about why schools need more support staff, not less, and why gutting educational service centers are a bad idea. That Jason Embry article linked by Grits also gets down to it:

In 2000, 49 percent of Texas students were considered economically disadvantaged. In 2010, that number reached 59 percent. These students often need extra attention as they move through the system.

As the student population has changed, Texas has continued to pile more demands on schools, and it costs money to meet those demands. Schools began giving the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a much tougher exam than its predecessor, in 2003, and began that year to require students in the third grade to pass the reading section of the test to advance to fourth grade. Today the test is tied to promotion in grades five and eight. In addition, students who used to graduate from Texas high schools with three credits in math and three in science now must have four credits in each. To meet these demands, schools have spent more on student remediation, teacher training and the renovation of science labs.

Schools are preparing to give a new test next year, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which the Texas Education Agency has promised “will be significantly more rigorous than previous tests.” And let’s not forget that, led by our last governor, the federal government created an additional set of accountability measures for schools to meet during the past 10 years.

The increasing demands on students have put more demands on teachers and principals, particularly considering the state’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing to judge schools.

Districts across the state have therefore decided to hire instructional coordinators, curriculum specialists and others to give students extra attention and to help teachers make sure their lessons help students meet the escalating expectations.

In other words, yes, schools spend more than they used to. But the people of Texas also ask their schools to do more than they used to.

Funny how that latter part always seems to get overlooked by the “schools have too many administrators” crowd. In addition, as BOR notes, the cost of administering TAKS tests in Texas increased tenfold from 1999 to 2009. There’s been way too much talk in this debate about what schools do or don’t need by people who probably haven’t stepped foot in a public school in forty years, and it’s drowning out those who are there every day trying their best to make it all work. Martha’s a fine example of the latter, so please go see what she has to say.

SBOE wants its new textbooks

But it may not get them.

State board members are growing increasingly anxious that lawmakers might not provide funding for new textbooks and instructional material – even though they’re giving the Legislature $1.9 billion from a 157-year-old endowment established to help schools, including providing free textbooks for students.

Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, warns that students won’t be able to handle tougher school accountability tests without updated instructional materials.

“It’s a moral imperative that you provide the proper instructional material,” Bradley said this week in an effort to focus attention on the conflict.

A unified board insists that lawmakers spend $500 million on textbooks and instructional material for biology, chemistry and physics in high school, and for English language arts and reading in lower grades, Bradley said.

“This is non-negotiable,” he said.

Some legislative leaders, however, question the wisdom of buying new textbooks when schools face up to $11 billion in budget cuts.

“Right now it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend money on textbooks and then fire the teachers who would be using the textbooks,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, vice chair of the House Public Education Committee and school finance expert on the Appropriations Committee.

Personally, I think Hochberg has the better argument here, and with the SBOE being short on friends these days, it’s not clear how they will overcome it. Sure, the new STAAR tests will require new materials, but we can always push back the implementation date on that. Given all the other upheaval that schools and school districts will be facing, that seems like the obvious thing to do. It hasn’t sunk in yet with Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro yet, though, as she insists there will be at last $400 million spent on new texts. Something will have to give, that much is for sure. Martha has more.

Where’s the money for new textbooks coming from?

Nobody knows just yet.

Neither legislative chamber’s base budget appropriates funds for any new textbooks. The primary concern in the short term is funding for science materials that reflect the 2009 curriculum changes made by the State Board of Education. Those changes are significant, according to Patsy McGee, a Beaumont school district science supervisor and past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas.

The new, more rigorous testing regimen — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness system — emphasizes college readiness and will count toward students’ graduation requirements.

Twelve mandatory exams for high schoolers will be phased in over the next four years; the class of 2015 will be the first to complete the full STAAR program.

Last fall, the State Board of Education, recognizing the likelihood of a state revenue shortfall, asked the Legislature for supplemental science materials that would reflect the curriculum changes and be available online only. By going the digital route, the price tag for the materials dropped from $347 million to $60 million.

In total, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is asking for about $520 million in updated instructional materials for the fall, for the online science materials and for new language arts materials based on standards also recently altered.

[…]

The Texas Education Agency intends to press on with the new testing, textbooks or not, and, barring action from the Legislature, is required by law to do just that.

Since the possibility of high-stakes testing without updated instructional materials became real, Scott has repeatedly warned that students might have legal grounds to sue districts or the state for failing to provide them with an opportunity to learn the subject matter on which testing is based.

At a board meeting in September, Scott said providing the materials is “an absolute moral and legal imperative.”

Seems to me there are only two possible choices here. The Lege can suck it up, find the money, and buy the textbooks and supplemental materials needed for the new STAAR tests (for which incoming high school freshmen this fall will be responsible), or admit that they’re incapable of doing so and push back the start date on STAAR until they can do it. The latter would be a stark admission that student performance will be affected by the budget cuts, so I take Sen. Florence Shapiro, who is quoted in the story saying getting this funded is a high priority for her, at her word. How they’re going to square that with all of the swaggering “no new revenue” talk, I have no idea. Reality is a harsh mistress.

Performance pay for teachers

I’m very wary of this.

Pay for Texas public school teachers should be connected to appraisals of their work and other factors instead of the 60-year-old salary schedule based on seniority, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and other school reformers said Monday.

They want more flexibility for school districts to base teacher pay on performance, professional development and educator career paths. The state’s severe budget shortfall creates an opportunity to dramatically reform public education by taking away state control, they say.

“Let’s get a compensation system that makes sense. Let’s get rid of the 60-year structure and relegate it to the Smithsonian where it belongs,” said Paige, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District before President George W. Bush appointed him to head the U.S. Department of Education.

[…]

The recommendations come from a report, “A Teacher Compensation Strategy for Excellence in the Texas Classroom,” by Chris Patterson for the Texas Institute for Education Reform.

Michael Aradillas, who helps organize about 1,600 Texas members of the American Federation of Teachers who work for Northside Independent School District, said he can appreciate the ideas coming out of Austin but wishes teachers were included in the conversation.

“A good launching point for all of that would be to say, ‘Let’s first start a dialogue and let’s include the teachers in the thought process of how they’re going to be compensated,” Aradillas said. “If it’s going to be a one-sided conversation then it’s going to be a one-sided evaluation. And that can, potentially, lead to unfair pay.”

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but everyone should take a moment to read Joel Spolsky’s essay about incentive pay and performance reviews. There may well be merit to allowing local districts to make their own decisions about salaries, and I don’t have any problems with scrutinizing how we do things in any context to see how we can do them better. My point is simply that any system of teacher pay we might transition to will have its own set of inefficiencies and inequities, and we ought to have our eyes open about that. And let’s be honest: In this context, the main driving factor behind any change to how we pay teachers will be cost cutting. Yes, reducing everyone’s pay a little is better than firing a huge number of teachers. But we all know that once their pay is reduced, it’s never going to get restored when times get better. We should be clear about what we’re doing.

The other point that should be made is that any performance-based pay scheme is going to be highly dependent on standardized test results. Don’t be surprised when people figure out ways to game that. If you think we might be leaning a little too heavily on standardized tests in the curriculum now, going this route will make them even more important. And the current shortfall is likely to have an effect on the new standardized tests that are in the pipeline.

The [Senate Education Committee] also took up the possibility of delaying the roll-out of STAAR, the state’s new achievement exams, a proposition popular with school officials. “If we need to put a pause on this testing because we don’t have the resources, you need to tell us,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who said he didn’t want to see “a bunch of ethnic minority kids being left behind” because the state couldn’t pay for the instructional materials to teach them what’s on the new tests.

[Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert] Scott said the agency is on track to implement STAAR, but added that if the new instructional materials weren’t funded in the final budget, it would affect students’ performance on the exams.

[Committee Chair Sen. Florence] Shapiro came out firmly in favor of keeping STAAR on track: “I want to make sure we don’t use the budget as an excuse to delay something that we’ve been working on for five years. … Let’s look at it as we are bringing rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time.”

How fair do you think performance-based pay would be under these circumstances? Abby Rapoport has more.