What do TAKS Ratings Tell You

Texas public school districts live and die by their ratings, but what do they really mean?

Next to nothing.
Short answer:

The TEA has ignored rampant cheating on TAKS for many years. Too much rests on these ratings to not expect cheating.
If schools are cheating on the TAKS test and the TEA will not investigate, what good are the ratings?

Students being able to graduate, administrators' and teachers' pay is tied to the ratings; local developers, builders and real estate agents depend on good ratings and good "press" to sell houses; and parents put far too much emphasis on TEA ratings. For all the above reasons there is an enormous amount of pressure put on administrators, teachers and children to perform well on one test with dubious value.

Lovejoy ISD, as well as several other Collin County schools were listed on TEA List of Suspect Scores.

TEA adds 241 schools with suspect scores
Campuses not likely to be part of inquiry into possible TAKS cheating
11:40 PM CDT on Friday, August 11, 2006
By JOSHUA BENTON / The Dallas Morning News

Texas officials have released the names of 241 more schools with suspicious patterns in their test scores. But none are likely to be targeted in the upcoming round of state investigations into possible cheating.

The new list, released Friday, brings the total number of schools with suspicious scores to 699. That's almost one-tenth of all the Texas schools that administered the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2005.

Earlier, the Texas Education Agency had released the names of only 442 schools that had at least one classroom with suspicious scores.

But Caveon – the test-security company the TEA hired to look for cheaters – also looked for schools that had suspicious score patterns schoolwide. Because of differences in the ways Caveon analyzed the scores, some schools were flagged as suspicious schoolwide without raising red flags in any specific classroom.
Dallas Morning News

Cheating inquiry clears schools
State's use of campus self-reporting in TAKS investigation questioned

12:02 AM CST on Friday, December 15, 2006
By JOSHUA BENTON / The Dallas Morning News

Nearly 600 Texas public schools have been cleared of suspicions of cheating, state officials said Thursday, leaving 105 other schools still under investigation.

Texas Education Agency officials cited the clearing of 592 schools as evidence of the integrity of the state's influential testing system.

"It is imperative that Texans trust our test results and have confidence that they are valid and reliable," Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said in a prepared statement.

But some question the thoroughness of the agency's investigation, which relied heavily on self-reported questionnaires filled out by school officials a year and a half after the 2005 tests in question.

"I don't know how accurate a set of responses you're going to get from sending people a questionnaire," said Jason Stephens, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating. "That might be expedient, but if there is something going on, nobody's going to go out and admit that."

The investigation stems from a report produced in May by Caveon, a test-security firm. It analyzed schools' scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and tried to determine which schools had unusual patterns that could suggest cheating.

The report flagged 700 schools for a variety of reasons, including scores that jumped too quickly, answer sheets with too many erasures and students whose answer patterns suggested they might have copied off a classmate.
Dallas Morning News

Collin County is one of the fastest growing communities in the nation. This adds more pressure for good scores to aid in housing sales. Developers are often school board members, or School Foundation members and can help with the positive press about the local schools in which they have development interests. Good ratings are critical for their financial success. Who wants to move into a school with poor ratings?

Schools prize top marks in rating game

State sorts districts into 4 categories, but critics point to bigger picture
07:17 AM CDT on Thursday, August 4, 2005
BY HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News

If home values are all about three words – location, location, location – then school values boil down to four:

Exemplary, recognized, acceptable, unacceptable.
Those simple labels are applied annually to Texas' public schools based on a complex formula that takes into account student scores on standardized tests, dropouts and high school graduation rates.

The ratings, which were released this week, spark passion, discussion – and sometimes obsession.

Teachers and parents celebrated in areas where schools experienced a bump up in the hierarchy. Other parents had questions after seeing their schools slide. Even real estate agents got in on the act.

"Out here it means everything," said Tom Grisak, a Realtor who works in Allen. His area includes the tiny Lovejoy Independent School District, whose two campuses earned top marks for 2005. Mr. Grisak posted the good news on his company Web site Tuesday.

"To say that both schools are exemplary, that is a huge selling factor. I can't tell you what an asset that is," he said. With homes in the area priced at more than $500,000 on average, families demand quality schools, Mr. Grisak said.

When the news isn't so good, educators end up more like company executives explaining a drop in stock prices.


The state factored in TAKS scores for students with disabilities for the first time this year.

Experts say the ratings frenzy is understandable, if not always sensible.

"Ultimately, what drives it is parents and educators want good schools," said Michael Sayler, an associate dean at the University of North Texas' college of education. State ratings offer an overview of how well schools are doing, he said.

Badge of honor

Schools and districts wear high ratings like badges of honor. They trumpet their "exemplary" or "recognized" status on banners, at community meetings, and on letterheads and Web sites. Meanwhile, districts rated unacceptable for two consecutive years face sanctions, including the possibility of a forced merger with another district. Wilmer-Hutchins is the only district in that situation.

Still, the labels hide nuances. A school might have had an influx of immigrant students, posing new challenges for teachers. Scores might have increased on the TAKS, but not enough to earn a higher rating.

Plus, ratings often say just as much about the children attending the school as the job teachers are doing: Schools that serve poor children, for several reasons, tend to perform worse than their wealthier counterparts.

Case in point: The most affluent schools (where no more than one in five children are poor) represent just 12 percent of all schools in Texas, but they make up 60 percent of campuses rated "exemplary" this year.

Property values

Jim Fite, president of Century 21 Judge Fite Realtors, said homebuyers study school reports and ratings. Some will gravitate toward districts with higher marks from the state, he said.

Poor ratings could hurt the real estate market in some districts, Mr. Fite said.

At Ebby Halliday Realtors, agent Kay Weeks advises homebuyers to visit a school and meet the principal. Ask about extracurricular activities, she suggests, and find out if parents are involved.

"You really can't look at these ratings as the be-all, end-all," Ms. Weeks said. "If there were more criteria for people to look at rather than just what the state puts out, I think it would be a lot more helpful."

School ratings do not compare apples to apples

Just for Kids attempts to compare schools with similar demographics to more accurately reflect educational excellence.
Lovejoy ISD ratings as compared to schools with similar demographics and the best schools across Texas

Just for Kids scores are based on TAKS testing. If the TAKS testing is flawed because of cheating, so are these scores.

State's exemplary schools not judged on all criteria

Campuses with less racial, socio-economic diversity judged on fewer criteria

12:11 AM CDT on Sunday, September 9, 2007
By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News

Three years into the TAKS system and more than five years into the federal No Child Left Behind law, those rewarded with the best performance remain a largely homogeneous group.

The state's exemplary districts tend to be small and rural, like Divide, or wealthy and suburban, like the four in North Texas: Southlake Carroll, Highland Park, Lovejoy and Sunnyvale.

That leaves some questioning whether school ratings have more to do with a district's demographics than the quality of its teaching.

The ratings system uses 36 accountability measures, the majority tied to performance on the TAKS exams. But most exemplary districts are judged on 10 or fewer measures because they don't have enough poor and minority students to count toward their rating. Both groups tend to score lower than their white and wealthier counterparts.

Divide's small size means that it had to perform well in only three subjects last school year. Highland Park had the distinction of having no poor students.

Overall, of the students attending exemplary districts last year, 5 percent were poor and 88 percent were white. Most exemplary districts have only several hundred students. And rarely do they have any with limited English skills.

In contrast, 55 percent of Texas public school students were poor and 36 percent were white. The largest student group is Hispanic.

Education officials now recognize that taking a snapshot in time of children at a certain grade level does not fully reflect how well school districts are educating children – especially those who are most vulnerable.

On both the state and federal level, educators are examining ways to rework the accountability system to measure whether a child's performance is improving from year to year. Texas legislators recently approved putting such a growth model into place by 2009.

"How do we acknowledge districts that do a really good job of advancing students, particularly disadvantaged students?" said Sandy Kress, a former education policy adviser to President Bush who helped design the state and federal accountability systems. "That is something that we probably as a state and a country need to keep working on in terms of refinements in our accountability system."

"Is the TEA comparing apples and oranges? No, it is more like grapes and watermelons," he wrote.


Exemplary districts

The top-rated districts tend to have similar traits.

Most are not rated on the performance of poor and minority children or on tougher subject areas such as science.

"We're a small, predominantly German Catholic community," said Dennis Holt, superintendent of Lindsay ISD, which had 512 students last school year. "We are small enough where the numbers don't come into play. We don't have all the different subgroups."

Some other patterns emerge:

•Only three of the 19 exemplary districts serve more than 1,000 students, according to enrollment data from last school year. All are in North Texas – Carroll, Highland Park and Lovejoy.

•Only six of the 19 districts are rated on the performance of poor children in any subject. Only five are rated on the performance of black or Hispanic students in any subject. Three are not rated on science scores.

•Only seven districts are rated at the high school level, where some of the highest failure rates occur on TAKS.

•The exemplary district with the highest number of measures to meet? Carroll, at 19.

While a number of individual schools with lots of poor and minority students have earned exemplary ratings from the state, the top tier is often more difficult to achieve on a districtwide level.

The state's 19 exemplary school districts, which educate 0.4 percent of the state's schoolchildren, have similar characteristics.

•Exemplary districts' student bodies are 88 percent white, 5 percent economically disadvantaged, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. School districts statewide are 36 percent white, 55 percent economically disadvantaged, 46 percent Hispanic and 14 percent black.

•Only seven exemplary districts are rated on the performance of high school students.

•Only six exemplary districts are rated in at least one subject on the performance of poor children.

•Only five districts are rated in at least one subject on the performance of black or Hispanic students.

•Only three exemplary districts serve more than 1,000 students – Carroll, Highland Park and Lovejoy. The rest range in size from 19 to 533 students.

•District rankings are based on 36 accountability measures. The smallest exemplary district, Divide ISD, was rated on only three measures, and the largest, Carroll, on 19 measures.

SOURCE: 2007 accountability ratings from the Texas Education Agency

The Texas Education Agency rates school districts on up to 36 measures to determine whether they are exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable or academically unacceptable.

The first 25 measures involve the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores in reading, writing, social studies, math and science for all students as well as for four subgroups: black students, Hispanic students, white students and poor students.

There must be at least 30 students in a subgroup for the measure to count.

To be rated exemplary, at least 90 percent of students in each category had to pass TAKS. Recognized districts have to have 75 percent passing rates or 70 percent passing and meet required improvement. Acceptable districts have to have a 65 percent passing rate in reading, writing and social studies, 45 percent passing in math and 40 percent in science or make required improvement.

The 26th measure checks the performance of special-education students on the State-Developed Alternative Assessment II.

The remaining 10 measures grade districts on their completion rate for grades nine through 12 and their dropout rate for seventh- and eighth-graders for all students as well as for the four subgroups.

Dallas Morning News



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