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Confusion Over School Ratings Changes

By Nathan Bernier, KUT Radio

Dallas, TX –

Twice as many schools in Texas received the state's highest rating of exemplary this year. But it wasn't as if children suddenly became twice as smart. It was because the state began using a new system to measure academic progress. The Texas Projection Measure - or TPM - gives schools credit for kids who fail if they are on track to pass in the future.

Diane Melton: I think it's a positive because now we are going to be comparing more of the picture and not just a small part of it.

Diane Melton is with the Texas Parent Teachers Association. She likes the fact that schools making great strides can now get credit for that progress.

Melton: In my opinion it was broken and it needed to be fixed and I was very glad to see it fixed.

But in trying to fix the system, the legislature created a new problem: distinguishing between the good and the almost-good. For example, schools that are projected to become academically acceptable are put in the same category as schools that already are academically acceptable. That complicates the job of people like Austin school board member Vince Torres.

Vince Torres: I'm trying to understand, 'Okay so how many of them fell into which category.' So I think for awhile keeping them separate helps me as a trustee to see where we are making progress and where we have continued to maintain our level of achievement.

But there's another question: how accurate is the projection model? Francis Deviney with the Center for Public Policy Priorities raised that issue one day before accountability ratings were announced.

Francis Deviney: The important distinction here is giving credit for growth that has occurred. And giving credit for projected growth that may or may not occur. So they may be right, but lots of things can happen between now and next year that cause them to fall back.

Robert Scott: I think that's a fair criticism of the projection measure.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

Scott: If I didn't think the data bears out what the projection is, they would be absolutely right, but I'd also point out that each of the data tables that we give for campuses shows how they would be rated under the system without TPM.

So parents who want to delve into the data tables on the TEA's website can get a clearer picture of what's going on with schools. Of course, they'll probably first want to read the two-hundred page manual on how to decipher the tables. Most of us just hear the headline - twice as many exemplary schools in Texas. To be fair, the TEA says it doesn't have the authority to create special categories to distinguish between schools that meet benchmarks and those that are projected to meet benchmarks. That's up to the state legislature. And it doesn't reconvene until 2011.

I'm Nathan Bernier in Austin.