Rankings Give Schools a One-Two Punch

Both state and federal accountability measures leave Austin ISD cold

About 10,000 Austin ISD students at eight schools are eligible – in principle – for transfer to schools with better performance measures, thanks (or no thanks) to the 2004 federal accountability rankings released Sept. 29. The rankings, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, are one of two competing (and confusing) systems by which Texas schools are measured – the Texas Education Agency also released its annual rankings last week, under which the district results were likewise short of impressive.

Both the state and federal rankings are highly effective systems of measuring whether teachers effectively drilled students to take standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests in reading and math. Beyond that, they differ in their scope: In addition to reading and math, the TEA includes tests in curricular areas like social studies or science, as well as dropout rates, to come up with its rankings. The federal rankings eschew other subject areas, though in addition to dropout data they consider campus attendance patterns and test participation rates.

The federal measures of "Adequate Yearly Progress" have the greatest immediate impact. If a school fails to sufficiently improve two years in a row, its district must allow its students to attend, and provide transportation to, another school. This means reassigning teachers, adding portable classrooms at high-scoring but full schools, and developing bus routes, which AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione estimated would cost more than $25,000 per route. To top it off, Forgione said, the fact that the rankings are released a month after the start of the school year makes the potential changes particularly disruptive. "This is very hard to do this time of year," he said. "Tell me in the summer so I know where the teachers need to be!"

However, Forgione pointed out that only 41 of 3,500 students who were eligible for transfer in 2002 exercised that option, and he encouraged parents to consider the value of staying in a neighborhood school. "Parents are given a choice to stay in their home campuses, and I hope they will," he said, adding, "We believe students are better off with their peers and their friends in neighborhood schools."

The impact of the state rankings is a bit more subtle, but nonetheless real, since AISD standardizes its curricula to prepare students for tests. For example, AISD's poor 2004 showing owes largely to low scores on science tests – the district made much of the fact that if science tests were excluded, the state would have given 57 of the 103 AISD campuses rankings of "exemplary" or "recognized," rather than only 23. "That's a function of the fact that we didn't put in place a rigorous, demanding curriculum in science until last year," Forgione said.

But to critics of test-driven accountability systems, such as UT professor Angela Valenzuela, that kind of "teaching to the test" is a far cry from substantive school reform. "It just creates an environment where the only things that are important are the things that can be measured, and where the tool itself is one that is more about managing the behavior of the adults in the system rather than really understanding what children know and how they learn," she said.

However, Valenzuela doesn't fault districts as much as she does the hoops they're required to jump through – hoops that drain money and create disruption in already-strapped public schools and that help make school failure and parent dissatisfaction a self-fulfilling prophecy. Joyce Guajardo is one parent who chose to home-school her son rather than continue to subject him to high-stakes testing in AISD. "There wasn't going to be anything but teaching to the test, so we chose not to go through that system," she said.

And with private school vouchers sure to be on the legislative agenda next spring, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy with particularly ominous implications for supporters of public education.

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Austin ISD, AISD, No Child Left Behind, Adequate Yearly Progress, AYP, Texas Education Agency, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, TAKS, Pat Forgione

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