Be Forewarned: Schools May Have Done Better in 2011, Yet Ratings May Drop

State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, Republican of Mount Pleasant, has come out with a timely warning of what to expect from state accountability ratings for 2011 due out later this month. Ratliff is a moderate politically, but he is quite fired up about the misleading nature of the Texas accountability system, for reasons that he shares in the following opinion piece, published online this week by both the Quorum Report newsletter and the TexasISD Web site. Ratliff writes:

“Later this month, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will release the ‘accountability’ ratings for Texas public schools. The reason I put the word accountability in quotation marks is simple. I don’t believe these ratings come anywhere close to telling the whole story to the local communities, taxpayers, parents or voters.  Therefore they offer little in the way of true accountability.  Let me explain.

“Many people across the state are familiar with the terms ‘exemplary,’ ‘recognized,’ ‘academically acceptable’ or ‘academically unacceptable’ when reading about our public schools.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have no idea what those words really mean or don’t mean.

“The TEA assigns these one or two-word descriptions to entire campuses and entire school districts in an attempt to provide the public with a general indication of how that campus or district is performing academically.  The problem is, they don’t.  In fact, these rankings only tell the public how the lowest performing sub-group is doing.   Yes, you read that right, the lowest. What are the subgroups?  Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Economically Disadvantaged and Special Needs students are the sub-groups TEA tracks.  So, at your local district, 4 out of 5 sub-groups could be doing great while one is struggling, and the whole campus or district gets the low ranking.

“The analogy I like to use is a high school track team. If the whole track team ran races every month of the year and at the end of the year EVERY team member received the worst time of the slowest runner, THAT’S our accountability rating system.  Does that sound fair or accountable to you?  Me neither.

“People love to talk about government being run like a business. Tell me any business that issues press releases only about how the weakest part of their organization is doing. They don’t do it. They tell you how the ENTIRE business is doing, the good and the bad.  We should demand the same from TEA when they tell us about OUR local schools.  We need a system that gives the customers (parents, students and local employers), the investors (taxpayers and voters), and the regulators (TEA and the Texas Legislature) a complete and accurate picture of the health of the entire education organization.  While one or two word descriptions are easy and convenient to talk about, or for Realtors to use when selling homes, we need more information to gauge the performance of our schools.

“I understand the need and support the concept of tracking different sub-groups to ensure no group of students is being ignored or falling through the cracks. But like so many government programs, anything worth doing is worth over-doing.

“Why do I bring this up now?  Well, earlier this year, the TEA changed the way it reports accountability ratings to the public. Without going into the weeds on the [Texas Projection Measure] (TPM) system and its flaws…suffice it to say the previous system wasn’t entirely accurate and tried to compensate for reporting on the lowest performing group of kids.   After taking a considerable amount of flak from the Texas Legislature (which was right on target), the TEA abandoned the TPM.

“What does all this mean to the average Texan?  A lot of campuses and districts will drop in the ratings this year compared to last. In fact, some campuses or districts may have BETTER overall performance on the TAKS test but end up with a LOWER rating from Austin.  Does this make sense to anyone?  This is yet another reason why I keep saying, ‘It’s time to tell Austin and Washington that we want our local schools back!’

“My message is simple. When you see the new accountability ratings come out later this month, don’t let the one word Wizard of Oz fool you, look behind the curtain and find out what is really happening at your local school district. Don’t let one adjective describe hundreds or even thousands of kids.  It just can’t do it.”

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