During the SISD (Sweetwater Independent School District) Board of Trustees meeting held on Thursday, August 30, one of the items discussed was the campus and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) ratings.
The state has recently raised the bar considerably in their specific standards. This past year, students--overall--were to meet the goal of an 87% passing rate or higher in Reading/English-Language Arts and an 83% passing rate or higher for Math in the new STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness).
Recently, the TEA (Texas Education Agency) announced that only 44% of campuses and 28% of school districts across the state met the AYP standard. These numbers fall short to last year's statistics of 66% of campuses and 50% of districts meeting AYP.
However, the state only bases their ratings upon the lowest performing sub-category within the campus. Classified sub-categories include--among others--Anglo, Hispanic, African American or even special education students, and each group must be within a 50-student range. And in some cases, some students can fall into more than one category.
Furthermore, within each sub-group, modified tests can be given. But, the federal government sets a limit on to how many modified tests (for students with physical and/or learning disabilities, among other factors) can be given, which is 3% of the students within each group.
According to a report from Thomas Ratliff, a Republican currently serving on the State Board of Education, "[T]he decision to allow students to take a modified test is made at the local level by a committee made up of teachers, counselors, principals and the parents of the child."
But, if a local district exceeds the 3% modified testing rate in the respective sub-category, the federal government counts the modified test as an automatic failure--even if the student passed the test.
At SISD, more than %3 of students were given modified tests in a specific sub-group, in which the state said that too many modified tests were given. As a result, the district did not meet the AYP standard.
For instance, at Sweetwater High School, only 61% of students passed the math portion of the test. But, the only grade being tested for math at SHS is the sophomore level.
At Sweetwater Middle School, the AYP rating for math (83%) was not met. However, this rating is based upon the 77% passing rate in a particular sub-category.
Furthermore, SIS (Sweetwater Intermediate School)--a school which has been rated as "Exemplary" for the past 15 years--was penalized because the state said that too many modified tests were being administered in one sub-category.
Kathy Smartt, the assistant superintendent of SISD, noted during the meeting that the classification of sub-categories are not only hurtful to students, but can even be considered as discriminatory against students.
But in the midst of the "complicated numbers game", the district has a reason to celebrate. In the 252 sub-categories within SISD, there were only three instances where the passing numbers of 87% (for Reading/English-Language Arts, or R/ELA) or 83% (for Math) were not met.
However, the state is still raising the bar, as the 2013 passing rates for the two subjects will be 93% (R/ELA) and 92% for Math. By 2014 and thereafter, 100% of students will have to pass or the AYP rating will not be met. The rising standards come from the structure of the current No Child Left Behind Act implemented in 2002.
Ratliff also noted in his report that a concern should be raised on what test scores are being used to figure the AYP rating, while also questioning the fairness of the entire process.
"While these [reading and math] are important subjects, they aren't the only subjects being taught in our schools...One of the problems with AYP, just like the current Texas accountability system, is it provides a very skewed report on the health of a school district or campus based on the scores of one student sub-population on one standardized test on one day of a 180-day school year."
Ratliff continues by arguing that problems arise as a result of "these kinds of flawed accountability systems", for people on all levels. For students, he poses the possibility of teachers giving regular tests to students for the sake of a better looking campus.
"But is that what is best for the student?" Ratliff asks. "No way."
Additionally, when a school is perceived as having poor performance, politicians want to impose harsh regulations; others want to implement the voucher system that would allow students a chance to leave their school.
Ratliff acknowledges that "no school district is perfect", but also calls out the Texas Legislature and the United States Congress for their accountability system on public schools "that looks at more than just standardized test scores".
"We need an accountability system that provides a complete picture of the performance of a school district, not the current system that provides a very distorted picture...The taxpayers deserve a more transparent and accurate report of our schools."
However, on Thursday, September 6, the TEA gave notice to administrators of an intention to apply for a general waiver of certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which would include the AYP standards. Leading the charge is Michael L. Williams, the state's Commissioner of Education, who hopes the U.S. Department of Education would allow the state to implement their own accountability system rather than the federal one.
Assistant Superintendent Smartt echoed Ratliff's concerns, stressing that the district's overall objective is about accountability. But, she also examines the comparisons and evaluations--or lack thereof--among other districts in the area.
"Most surrounding districts do not have 50 or more students within a subgroup, so it is very misleading to think the smaller districts met AYP when actually they were not evaluated," said Smartt. "Once again, the picture of success is distorted due to a flawed system of evaluation."
Smartt concluded by saying, "However, when the U.S. Department of Education readily admits that the federal AYP accountability system is flawed and sets up students, schools and states to fail, it is time to look forward to one state accountability system."