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Few educators excited about proposed new school accountability system

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, May 4, 2013

Last Tuesday, Texas Commissioner of Education Michael L. Williams released the new school accountability system – the successor to the unacceptable-acceptable-recognized-exemplary rating system.

The reception so far has been mixed, at best.

Williams announced that four components will make up the new 2013 state accountability system for school districts, campuses and charter schools:

  • student achievement – a snapshot of performance across all subjects, on both general and alternative tests, at an established performance standard.
  • student progress – provides an opportunity for diverse campuses to show improvements made independent of overall achievement levels. Growth is evaluated by subject and student group.
  • closing performance gaps – emphasizes advanced academic achievement of the economically disadvantaged student group and the lowest-performing race/ethnicity student groups at each campus or district, and
  • postsecondary readiness – includes measures of high school completion, and beginning in 2014, STAAR test performance. This measure emphasizes the importance of students receiving high school diplomas that provide the foundation necessary for success in college, the workforce, job training programs or the military.

“I have heard the criticism of the previous accountability system, with its overemphasis on a school’s lowest-performing areas and its blind spot to what a district or charter might be doing well,” Williams said. “The new system makes use of multiple indicators to provide parents and taxpayers a more detailed overview of the successes, as well as areas of necessary improvement, for each school district, charter and campus.”

The revised system still uses student assessments – previously the TAKS test, now the STAAR – but also uses other indicators to provide greater detail on the performance of a district or charter and each individual campus throughout the state.

Schools and districts did not receive a state accountability rating in 2012, but under federal Average Yearly Progress accountability, they were assigned a status of Meets AYP, Missed AYP or Not Evaluated.

This year, a district’s 2012 STAAR performance may be used to calculate improvement from 2012 to 2013 and to determine ratings.

The first ratings under the new system are due out Aug. 8 – but there’s already a proposal in the Texas Senate that would suspend the new ratings until 2014.

CRITICISM POURS IN

Casey McCreary, assistant executive director for the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) was among those expressing disappointment in the new ratings system, noting that STAAR test performance is still a major component of a district’s score.

“The ‘new’ 2013 accountability system is still focused on the same ‘old’ thing – high stakes tests,” he said. “This new system is still lacking a comprehensive approach as it measures little more than STAAR results. What about schools with a great college prep program, a phenomenal fine arts program, or extensive Career and Technical Education course offerings? This limited system fails to communicate to parents the other good features of their child’s school.”

Thomas Ratlifff, Vice-Chair of the State Board of Education, said he, too, was disappointed that the focus continues to be on testing, and called for an accountability system “that looks at the whole child during the whole year, not just the child with a #2 pencil in his/her hand at the end of the year.”

“While there is an unspecific nod to adding Career/Technology courses to the accountability system in 2015 and beyond, there is still no mention of UIL achievements, fine arts, or community involvement,” Ratliff said.

He did, however, applaud Williams’s efforts to eliminate the “trip wires” in the system that penalize an entire campus or district for the performance of a small number of students on one test.

“This is a huge step in restoring fairness to the accountability system,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is still more work to be done.”

Under the new system, school districts, campuses and charter schools will receive one of three ratings:

  • Met Standard – Met accountability targets on all indexes for which they have performance data in 2013
  • Met Alternative Standard – Met modified performance index targets for alternative education campuses or districts, or
  • Improvement Required – Did not meet one or more performance index targets.

However, plans are to convert to a more academic-sounding A through F rating system for 2014.

AREA SUPERINTENDENTS NOT THRILLED

School district administrators in Wise County, looking for positives in the new system, found little to applaud.

“The A through F method of accountability, I see that as no different from what we currently have,” Decatur ISD Superintendent Rod Townsend said. “It’s just a letter grade instead of a word.”

Townsend said one bill currently under consideration in the Senate would make student performance about 20 percent of the total score.

“I think that’s about right,” he said. “They need to look at things like participation in AP courses, extracurriculars, career and technology programs. If we’re going to offer five different diploma programs, then we need to be held accountable all the way across the board of what we’re offering kids.”

A school district’s financial accountability should also be included, he added.

He did say considering a student’s improvement is a positive step.

“If a student can grow a year-and-a-half in one year, that school is doing a good job, even if he doesn’t pass the test,” he said.

But, he added, the rating system is still too complex.

“I have a hard time understanding it,” he said. “The average person who’s not involved in the school business – I don’t know what it looks like to them.”

Bridgeport ISD Superintendent Eddie Bland said a rating system is valuable only to the extent that it can be used to diagnose and correct learning problems in campuses and students.

“The new system, we’re still not going to be able to use it diagnostically,” he said. “You can’t see the questions and use it to help the kid. If we are going to use this as a diagnostic tool to figure out where they’re doing well and where they’re not, that’s valuable.”

He noted some states that went to an A through F system are already repealing it. And he stressed that districts aren’t shying away from accountability – they just want it based on fair criteria.

“Asking for less testing is not asking for less rigor,” he said. “It’s still an in-depth curriculum – but there’s too much emphasis on testing. We’re testing our kids to death.

“Use it diagnostically. Find some balance in there. End-of-course testing can be very punitive. Students develop at different speeds. The key is, are they progressing? The administration and even the kids are not opposed to accountability. But it needs to be a fair assessment, and used for the right purposes.”

Alvord ISD Superintendent Bill Branum said he doesn’t believe the system described by Williams will be applied this year.

“I will be very surprised if what he came up with, like it was presented, sticks,” he told his board Monday evening. “There’s legislative resistance to it, and there are bills under consideration that are contradictory to it.”

And, Branum added, the new system still falls short of providing an accurate picture of students and schools.

“It’s a little bit better than something that’s absolutely pathetic, which is what we have now,” he said. “But it’s not close to what our kids need.”

STILL MORE WORK TO DO

Williams’ news release said the new system is a step in the right direction.

“It’s important to note that while the new system bases accountability on an index framework, the state will emphasize the importance of closing achievement gaps and addressing the needs of all students in Texas,” Williams said. “Those districts and campuses that are leaders in improving achievement for all students will be easily identified under this system.”

All aspects of the system cannot be fully implemented at this time, he noted, so 2013 will be considered a transition year. He acknowledged that various aspects of the accountability system are under review by the legislature, and any changes emerging from the current legislative session will have to be incorporated into the system.

Ratliff quoted Williams as saying repeatedly that “We measure what we treasure” when it comes to public schools.

“I worry that this new system tells the students, teachers and parents involved in things like fine arts, UIL academic and athletic programs, ‘We don’t treasure what you do’ at the state level,” he said.

“In many instances, extracurricular activities are what make a good school a great school, or a good student a standout amongst his/her peers.”

He said many of the things colleges look at, and many of the things that create the most community involvement in schools, are not included in the accountability system.

“Parents and community members show up in huge numbers across the state for athletic events, fine arts events, or county fairs where students display their handiwork,” Ratliff said. “Local communities treasure it – why doesn’t the state measure it?”

In the previous state accountability system, campuses and districts were required to meet criteria on up to 25 separate assessment measures (five subjects times five student groups), plus up to 10 dropout and high school completion measures in order to achieve the Academically Acceptable rating.

A school could be rated Academically Unacceptable because of poor performance on a single measure, even if all other measures indicated high performance.

The new system is designed to allow accountability on a larger number of measures, without the rating dependent on a single one.

One thing everyone would likely agree on is that the landscape will change between now and Aug. 8.

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