Bob Ray Sanders

January 11, 2014

Finally: school ratings that make sense

Children at Risk will issue guides that can empower parents to choose best education options.

In attempts to make public schools more accountable, the state for years has devised rating and labeling systems that have not always been the most useful.

In fact, often I’ve thought that labels such as “academically unacceptable” attached to a campus often served to stigmatize a school or district rather than provide an incentive for improvement.

Every few years in Texas we try something different — new standardized testing, rating models and curriculum requirements for graduation — with a goal of enhancing student achievement.

Just this past Thursday the Texas Education Agency issued its annual list of the worst schools in the state under the latest rating system. There are a total of 892 failing campuses, up from 456 last year.

Included on the list of low-performing schools are 38 in Fort Worth, eight in Arlington, two in Keller and one in Grapevine-Colleyville. Under Texas’ Public Education Grant (PEG) program, a student in any of those schools has a right to transfer to a campus outside the district.

Many parents are lost when it comes to assessing the quality of their children’s schools. And even if they understand their kids are enrolled at a failing campus, they don’t know how best to interact with school officials on their children’s behalf, or navigate the system to get them transferred.

Now the nonprofit group Children at Risk, which has its own unique rating system for Texas public schools, has devised a resource to help parents determine the quality of their children’s educational options.

In a press conference Monday morning, the organization will release two publications analyzing the public schools (including charters) in the Dallas school district and Fort Worth school district areas. It’s called the “Texas School Guide: A Parent’s Roadmap to Success in Fort Worth [Dallas] ISD Area Public Schools.”

The Fort Worth Guide is a 129-page report that includes an analysis of individual campuses, complete with a letter grade, enrollment figures, state rankings, percentage of students passing standardized tests and graduation rates.

Even more important, the guide offers instructions to parents on how to get more involved with their children’s schools, what to look for in early childhood education and preparing the kids for post-secondary education.

Information in the guide makes the rankings “actionable,” said research coordinator Jessica Noel.

Children at Risk, a Houston-based organization with an office in North Texas, issued grades for Fort Worth- and Dallas- area schools last spring, based on information received from the individual schools.

In Fort Worth only four elementary schools received an A, with 11 getting Fs. No middle school got an A, but five received an F. And only one Fort Worth area high school, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts (a charter) got an A, while three FWISD high schools got an F.

One Fort Worth high school ranked one from the bottom on the state list —1,170 out of 1,171 schools.

Using that school as an example, without naming it because I can’t name all the other “F” schools, other information a parent would learn from the guide is that it has an enrollment of 1,160; 71.6 percent of students are economically disadvantaged; the student-teacher ratio is 12.9 to 1; 2.5 percent of students are white; only 2 percent of the 10th-graders got a commended rating on the standardized math test; and its graduation rate is only 54.4 percent.

With that information parents armed with the guide can advocate for their children by building relationships with schools and community groups, understanding the political makeup and the names of the school board members and assessing teacher qualifications.

Copies of the guide will be distributed through nonprofit groups, places of worship, local businesses and community centers. In addition, Children at Risk will hold parent workshops on using the guide and set up a website.

This worthy project, which was funded by the Rainwater Charitable Foundation of Fort Worth, is an excellent tool for parents interested in improving their children’s education.

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