Other Voices

Texas should overhaul school accountability

A student works on a vocabulary activity during a class designed to prepare students for taking standardized tests.
A student works on a vocabulary activity during a class designed to prepare students for taking standardized tests. Special to the S-T

Education has been mostly missing-in-action in this bizarre election year, yet the quality of our schools will in large part determine whether Texas — and the United States as a whole — have the bright future we want.

Thankfully, despite today’s crazy politics, state leaders have a rare opportunity to set schools on the right trajectory for years to come.

That opportunity was created by a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and gives states far greater leeway to design the school accountability system that will work best for their students.

Kids must still take annual tests in reading, writing, and mathematics, but states now enjoy much more freedom in how they turn the test score results and other information into judgments about school effectiveness.

In other words, leaders in Texas (and elsewhere) now get to define what it means to be a great school — or a failing one.

Texas’ school accountability system, like that of most states, needs a total overhaul. It’s a relic of the NCLB era and has a fatal flaw that urgently needs fixing.

Namely, it continues to judge schools based largely on the percentage of students who attain the “proficient” mark on state tests.

While that might sound reasonable, it sends a signal to schools the only kids whose learning really matters are those performing just below or just above the “proficiency” line.

This is particularly pernicious for high-achieving poor children, students who deserve better and are crucial to our nation’s competitiveness.

They’re the most dependent on the school system to cultivate their potential and accelerate their achievement, yet Texas does little to encourage schools to pay attention to them.

It needn’t be this way, and Texas should take three steps when designing its new school-accountability system to ensure that all kids count.

First, it should rate schools using a model that gives additional credit for students achieving at a high level — something today’s system doesn’t do consistently.

Under ESSA, Texas must continue to track the percentage of students who attain proficiency on the state test, but the state is free to also give schools incentives for students who earn high marks.

Policy makers could, for example, create an achievement index that gives schools partial credit for getting students to “basic,” full credit for getting students to “proficient,” and additional credit for getting them to “advanced.”

Second, the state should continue to measure the progress of individual students from one year to the next, but make their growth the major focus of school grades.

Texas already uses a “gain score model,” which uses a common scale to measure the absolute improvement in each student’s achievement.

Such models do a better job of capturing schools' effect on student achievement than proficiency rates, which are strongly correlated with student demographics, family circumstance and prior achievement.

And well-designed growth measures can eliminate the temptation for schools to ignore their high achievers.

It’s important then that the state both keeps this model and increases the weight it assigns to student growth in its accountability system.

Finally, Texas should signal that high achieving students matter and report their progress separately, much as it already does for special education students and English language learners.

Whether they’re growing or languishing in proficiency-focused classrooms is important to know.

High-achieving students — especially those growing up in poverty — need all of the attention they can get. Under NCLB, they were an afterthought — a fate no child should suffer.

Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.