In the accountability ‘Twilight Zone’

08/12/2014 5:59 PM

08/13/2014 8:33 AM

The new Texas public school accountability system will take a while to get used to.

The Texas Education Agency announced the system’s 2014 ratings Friday for the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charters, and for more than 8,500 individual campuses.

Overall, 85 percent of the state’s schools did well.

Texas has had accountability systems in place for decades, aimed at showing people how well schools are doing their job of educating kids.

The new system has significant changes.

At its top level, it is simpler, maybe even overly simple. In place of the previous system’s multipoint ratings — exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable or academically unacceptable — there are only two: met standard or improvement required. It’s pass or fail.

No longer can a neighborhood school post a big sign declaring itself “an exemplary school.” There are no such schools anymore, only those that are OK and those that need to get better.

But the new system also has detail — in abundance. Fair warning: Unless you enjoy figuring out mathematical algorithms, you’re not going to want to get deep into the details.

As Charles T. Carroll, the Keller school district’s chief academic officer, put it in a letter to parents last week, “It is very complicated, even to people who do this for a living.”

The pass/fail rating is based on a school district’s or individual school’s performance on four separate indices. Each index has a target, and the district or school either meets that target or it doesn’t.

The complicated part — a Twilight Zone that you don’t want to cross over into unless math is your thing — is that performance is measured on a point system. The district’s or school’s points feed into an algorithm that determines whether they meet the target.

The part of the system that will be most familiar to parents is Index 1, Student Achievement. It’s based on student scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests.

Reminder for those parents who have trouble keeping up: STAAR tests replaced the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests in 2012.

This year, the Index 1 target was 55. Don’t try to equate that with scoring 55 on a test that has a maximum score of 100, because the system doesn’t work that way. It’s just a number that plugs into the algorithm.

In the Fort Worth school district, all but 13 of the 129 schools rated this year met the Index 1 target.

Index 2 looks at student progress.

Some schools got a raw deal under the previous accountability system because even though they did a good job in improving individual student performance, they still weren’t up to the passing score yet.

The new system provides a chance for their hard work to be noticed. All but five Fort Worth schools met the target for student progress.

Index 3 is a new focus on closing performance gaps. It measures how well schools are doing in bringing economically disadvantaged students and the lowest-performing racial/ethnic groups up to the same levels as other students.

Index 3 is crucial in allowing educators to focus on meeting the needs of all student groups.

Index 4 is a measure of postsecondary readiness — meaning how well students are prepared for jobs or college after they graduate.

It includes measures of graduation rates for all students and separate student groups, the percentage of students taking advanced courses and dual-enrollment (college credit) courses, career and technical education courses and other factors.

Index 4 has targets for elementary schools, intermediate/middle schools and high schools, recognizing that the road to college and career readiness starts early.

Finally, an element of the new system harkens back to “exemplary” school designations. Campuses that meet all of the system’s targets are eligible for “distinction” in key subject areas and accountability measures based on how they compare to 40 other campuses of similar type, size and student demographics.

Once you get the basics of the new system down, there’s this: Some details will change as testing elements are added and index targets are raised.

It’s a better system. Really, it is. But it is hard to follow at first.

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