Preliminary TAKS Scores Do Not Bode Well for FWISD

by Betty Brink

The Fort Worth schools’ preliminary rankings on the 2011 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, otherwise known as TAKS, have been released by the Texas Education Agency — and they are not good. Twenty-two schools have been ranked “academically unacceptable” this year. Fifty-seven came in with the next to lowest rank, “academically acceptable,” 33 got a “recognized” status, and only six achieved the highest rank, “exemplary.”

The district is ranked “academically acceptable.” With an asterisk: The ranking is based on the district meeting a “required improvement or exception standard.” “This means that when schools or districts are below the standard for passing but have moved up toward it by a sufficient number of percent points, usually about four percent, in the last year, they reach that mark,” Trustee Ann Sutherland said. “Notice that the district as a whole is not academically acceptable unless this yardstick is employed.” Eighteen schools that were ranked academically acceptable also had the asterisk, which means that at least 40 schools actually failed. By the time the final results are released in July, any of these schools, as well as the district, could fall into the unacceptable category if the TEA determines that the benchmark was not met.

The scores “tell us that there is much work to be done,” said Sutherland, who has been one of the sharpest critics of Superintendent Melody Johnson’s administration, pointing out that when Johnson arrived here to assume the post in 2005, Fort Worth ranked second from the top academically among the state’s six urban districts, FW, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso. Today, it ranks second from the bottom, and the results of this year’s TAKS scores could drop it to the bottom.

(The other district’s scores have not been publicly released so comparisons will have to wait. Fort Worth has also not released these rankings to the public. However, Johnson, who has had the results since mid May, sent them to be board late on Friday, June 3, after Sutherland, Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez demanded at last week’s board meeting that she release them.)

“I am very disappointed that we have so many low performing schools,” wrote trustee Carlos Vasquez in an email. ”Dr. Johnson’s Vision 2010 and strategies have not worked. She has taken most of the instructional leadership away from our principals. Principals cannot chose what programs they have in their schools. … There seems to be a disconnect between our Central administration and our schools. You can’t blame the principals or the schools when they can only do what downtown mandates. We need to empower our principals, shift Title 1 monies back to the campus level and let them lead and not just manage.”
Johnson, in a move that surprised her board, submitted her resignation on May 19, effective September 19. While she has said only that she is leaving for family reasons, her mother is ill in California, it is significant, these trustees say, that Johnson submitted her resignation the day after she is alleged to have received the preliminary test results. Compared to last year’s scores, the district seems to be in deep trouble. However, those scores, which Johnson and her staff touted at the time as the result of her abilities to bring high academic achievements to the district, have been found to be highly misleading.

In 2010, the district showed only five academically unacceptable campuses, while 62 were ranked academically acceptable, 37 recognized, and 12 achieved the coveted exemplary status. However, last year’s scores were based on a questionable formula churned up the Texas Education Agency that has since been thrown out by the commissioner of education as an illegitimate way to rank Texas schools. Called the Texas Projection Measure, it was discarded after Democratic state representative Scott Hochberg from Houston exposed it as a misguided attempt to make Texas kids look better against their national peers by manipulating test scores. Briefly, what it did was add “helpers” to many schools, raising them up one rank, according to Sutherland, who called the system “a fraud.”

That year the state applied the formula that, simply put, allowed failing children to be counted as having passed the TAKS based on an assumption that these kids would one day pass the tests because other children whose test scores fit the same pattern eventually passed. The TEA called it a “growth measure.” Yet as columnist Rick Casey wrote in the Houston Chronicle last year, “To most of us, that would imply that [the TPM] looked at how a child did this year compared to the last.” But, Casey wrote, Hochberg brought out in a legislative hearing, that TPM doesn’t measure an individual child’s growth. It looked only at previous years’ scores of all students and, based on a formula devised from thousands of prior results, projected that children who pass reading or math were “likely” to pass other tests in future years. The now discarded formula, Casey pointed out, allowed half of the 1 million students who failed the TAKS being transformed into passing test takers, the number of unacceptable schools cut in half, while the number of “exemplary” schools doubled. The result: an artificially high ranking for most schools across the state, including Fort Worth.

“Now we are in the real world,” said one teacher.

“We need to analyze what part of the drop is due to the TPM and what part is due to us and districts need to ‘raise hell’ with Austin over this nonsense.,” Sutherland said. .

Many teachers and others, including the three trustees who pressured Johnson to release the scores, say that the 22 failing schools are the major reason Johnson has submitted her resignation. She leaves the district on September 19, unless – as is likely to happen – the board votes this coming Tuesday night to hire Deputy Superintendent Walter Dansby as an interim super allowing her to leave early.

One of Johnson’s most vocal critics said today that these latest results show that those who are “heaping praise” on Johnson as an innovator and great superintendent “have forgotten the unwarranted, unimaginable and unforgivable failure rate of the children in the Fort Worth public school system, especially for our black children. … The bigotry of low expectations has come true,” said Kyev Tatum, a minister and president of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The low-performing schools, many with high minority populations, are: Dunbar High School; Eastern Hills HS; Polytechnic HS; Western Hills HS; O. D. Wyatt HS; Forest Oak Middle School; Dunbar 6th Grade; Handley Middle School; William James MS; McLean MS; Meacham MS; Meadowbrook MS; Morningside MS; Monnig MS; Leonard MS; Maude L. Logan Elementary School; Meadowbrook ES; D. McRae ES; AM Pate ES; Versia Williams ES; Atwood McDonald ES; and Woodway ES. The vast majority failed in either reading, math and science or a combination of the three. Versia Williams failed only the writing test and Dunbar 6th Grade and Meadowbrook Elementary failed only reading.

Schools receiving exemplary status were the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, in its first year; Riverside Applied Learning Academy; Burton Hill Elementary, George C. Clark ES; Tanglewood ES; and Van Zandt Guinn Elementary.