"These are the kids that will then have the highest dropout rates," said the Rev. Kyev Tatum, an education advocate. "We’re telling kids there’s zero tolerance, and then they’re going to give schools exceptions on educating students?"


FORT WORTH, TEXAS - This year Keller High School reclaimed its "recognized" status on the Texas accountability chart. But is the school as good as the second-best rating suggests?

Dunbar Middle School in southeast Fort Worth is "academically acceptable" in the state’s eyes, but it would have been "unacceptable" — the lowest rating — had it not gotten a bump because many more students passed the science Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills than last year.

The story is similar at Knox Elementary in east Arlington, where Hispanic passing rates overall dropped 16 points. Still, the school was rated "recognized," even though those students didn’t hit the benchmark for that ranking.

State ratings are not always what they seem because of the complex system of exceptions and provisions that grade campuses on a curve, allowing them to earn higher ratings than test results alone would merit.

Without such provisions, an additional 36 Tarrant County schools would have been "unacceptable," including Fort Worth’s Southwest High School and Arlington High School, a Star-Telegram analysis shows. In Fort Worth alone, exceptions and other provisions allowed 19 schools to escape "unacceptable."

About 60 Tarrant County schools were "recognized" or "exemplary" after the state gave them exceptions — passes in certain testing areas — or because they made "required improvement" within specific student groups.Some schools also received a break this year after the state changed the way it defines dropouts.

Critics say the exceptions need to stop.

"It’s presenting a false picture of where public education is today," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Business Association in Austin.
Educators, however, say the provisions give schools with diverse student populations and lower-income students a chance to succeed in a system that favors small, less diverse schools.

"We don’t judge businesses on their lowest-performing areas," Fort Worth schools Superintendent Melody Johnson said. If one group is struggling in one area, she said, "it is not acceptable, no. But it doesn’t convey the right message about what is going on at that school, either."

TAKS exceptions

All schools are running a race.

A smaller school with only one or two kinds of students has fewer hurdles to overcome than larger schools more diverse in ethnicity and income. The more hurdles, the more areas a school is graded on for ratings. The more areas graded, the more exceptions the state gives to schools to help boost their ratings.

"The exceptions level the playing field for larger districts," said Suzanne Marchman, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

The 79,000-student Fort Worth school district, for example, is graded on 27 measures. The 165-student Dime Box school district, southwest of College Station, is graded on 12, she said.
Morningside Elementary in near southeast Fort Worth, for example, moved up this year from "unacceptable" to "acceptable" after the state granted the school an exception for passing rates in reading and English language arts. Only 69 percent of students overall and 67 percent of African-American students passed those tests; 70 percent was required for "acceptable."

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said the provision hurts minorities most because it obscures whether schools are truly educating those students.

"These are the kids that will then have the highest dropout rates," said Tatum, an education advocate. "We’re telling kids there’s zero tolerance, and then they’re going to give schools exceptions on educating students?"

Gene Buinger, superintendent of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, rejects Tatum’s argument.

Six of H-E-B’s eight exemplary schools won top ratings because of TAKS exceptions. Four hit the mark because some passing rates for African-American or Hispanic students were not counted against them.

Exceptions, Buinger said, are granted only when schools are within a few points of benchmark passing rates. Schools or districts must be within 5 points of a rating to receive an exception, which the state automatically applies.

Take Wilshire Elementary in Euless, one of H-E-B’s exemplary schools. The state says 90 percent of students must pass the math TAKS for a school to win the top rating. That didn’t happen at Wilshire this year. It got a pass on its African-American students’ passing rate in math, which was 89 percent.

Buinger said the rating system holds schools accountable for achievement in each student group, including minorities, a drastic change from when he started working in Texas schools many
years ago.

Differences in minority and Anglo students’ performance were "dramatic and indefensible," he said. "Now over the years, under three different testing systems, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in closing the achievement gap."

Wally Carter, the Arlington district’s longtime research and testing director, said ratings don’t accurately tell parents how their children’s schools are doing. He said the state should move toward an accountability system that shows how much students grow over time.

He said that at Knox, for example, the overall passing rate for Hispanic students went from 88 percent to 72 percent. But those results are based on a different group of students who could have started much further behind the last group of students tested, he said.

"When society makes all things truly equal and equitable, then we can all have the same standard," Carter said. "But until then, it’s about how much you are bringing students forward. Fairness is complex. Equity is complex."

Giving credit

One provision rewards schools for making significant gains.

The improvement provision allows parents and other community members to see which schools performed better on TAKS this year. At least 38 Tarrant County schools were rewarded this year for making "required improvement" when the ratings were released early this month.

At Keller High School, only 70 percent of low-income students passed the math test, though for "recognized," the state requires a 75 percent passing rate in all areas. But Keller High’s scores showed a 7-point improvement for low-income students from last year, the gain that boosted the school’s rating.

The community should be proud of that progress, said Deana Lopez, Keller’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

"Go and found out how many 5A schools out there can call themselves,” Lopez said. "The accountability system itself is based on your 'recognized,’ lowest-performing group instead of on growth."

Blanton Elementary in Arlington also reached "recognized" for the first time since 2004. It just missed the mark in science for Hispanic and poor students, but 30- and 27-point jumps, respectively, among those students allowed it to get the rating.

At Dunbar Middle School in Fort Worth, 37 percent of students passed science on the 2007 TAKS. But that was an 11-point gain from last year, so the campus is "acceptable." The passing rate on science for an "acceptable" school is supposed to be 45 percent.

Johnson said it is unacceptable to have any school, no matter how it’s labeled, performing below standards.

But it’s harder for schools with large numbers of limited-English speakers or low-income students to pass the TAKS, she said.

Students in every grade level in Fort Worth made gains this year, particularly in science, Johnson said. And that has happened as the state has toughened standards for passing the TAKS, she said.

"Many schools are making incredible progress, but they are still so far behind," she said.