Disparities develop between state and federal requirements
A record number of school districts in Texas—including Cy-Fair ISD—fell short of the minimum accountability requirements for the 2011-12 school year because of increasingly stringent state and federal education standards, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, federal accountability requires public schools to rise to a passing rate of 100 percent on reading and mathematics standardized tests by 2014. This means steep increases in standards—results for 2011-12 were last released in August—for the next two years, according to the TEA.
"Generally speaking, we'd like to see a mixture of a top–down and bottom–up accountability system," said James Golsan, education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "We understand there is a need for strong accountability in this state, and we have that in place. It is a pretty rigid system right now, and we support anything that would provide more flexibility."
A flawed system
Of the more than 1,200 school districts in the state, 876—or 73 percent—missed adequate yearly progress requirements this year because of a substantial increase in standards, according to the TEA.
"The U.S. Department of Education readily admits that the federal AYP accountability system is flawed and sets up students and states to fail," said Suzanne Marchman, Texas Association of School Administrators communications director. "Having conflicting state and federal accountability systems is confusing and duplicative. [We] look forward to one state accountability system that encompasses multiple assessments, greater validity, and reflects what students know and appreciate what they can do."
The accountability system takes several indicators into consideration. Along with graduation and attendance rates, adequate yearly progress evaluations are based on TAKS testing for 10th graders and STAAR testing for students in grades three–eight. Apart from the minimum passing rate on standardized testing, schools must meet a year-over-year percentage improvement among student demographics. As part of AYP requirements under No Child Left Behind, only a certain percentage of special needs children can actually pass the assessments, said Linda Macias, CFISD associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction and accountability.
"Even though the district didn't reach the AYP standard this year, our reading scores were in the 80s or 90s, as were our math scores," she said. "Only 1 percent of [special needs] students can pass the STAAR alternate and 2 percent can pass the TAKS modified. There can be no more than 3 percent passers. Any [students] above this percentage are counted as failing grades."
Despite meeting the minimum improvements in every other demographic, CFISD failed to meet AYP standards for the special education group. The district needed a 2-percent increase, but only achieved 1 percent improvement over last year.
"I have concerns about new high-stakes testing, especially when combined with the funding cuts last session and inequities in the system," said state Rep. Patricia Harless, R–Spring. "I want our kids to have the best possible education so they are more prepared to compete in our global economy. I support parent's choice to educate their children."
The next steps
Because of the changing AYP standards, seven CFISD campuses—two high schools, four middle schools and one elementary—are now categorized as Stage 1 schools.
To determine Stage 1 status, a school must miss AYP standards for two consecutive years. Once this status is reached, enrolled students qualify for school choice under Texas law. The district is required to provide two alternative campus choices and provide transportation to those campuses.
Earlier this year, CFISD sent about 12,000 letters to parents whose children attend Stage 1 schools explaining their right to allow their children to transfer to one of two campuses within the district that met AYP standards.
"We received about 430 letters from parents who had expressed interest," Macias said. "However, our schools are calling parents to verify whether they still want the transfer, as several [parents] have called retracting their requests."
As of Sept. 10, only nine students had followed through with the transfers.
Despite failing to meet federal standards, CFISD continues to succeed academically, which may have led to the low number of transfers from Stage I schools, Macias said.
"I believe our community knows that we have great schools in Cypress–Fairbanks," she said. "We have a common curriculum, scope and sequence that is followed at each school—and we have high expectations for all students. Our goal is to ensure that all of our students are learning and showing growth in achievement."
For the 10th consecutive year, the district received a "superior achievement" rating from the TEA. Also, 32 of the district's campuses received—for the third year—the 2012 Texas Honors Circle Award, which recognizes schools and districts that achieve academic success through cost-effective operations. Only 329 campuses received this distinction statewide, meaning CFISD accounted for nearly 10 percent of the awards. CFISD was one of 43 Texas districts to earn such a high rating, according to Texas Comptroller Susan Comb's office.
"The current system is hard to understand," said Stacye Anderson, chairperson for the CFISD Community Leadership Committee. "[It] bases accountability ratings on the lowest performing segment in a school and district, and drives teachers to focus on preparing students to perform well on [a] test which is not necessarily synonymous with teaching the curriculum most effectively."
With the 83rd Legislative session approaching and more states adopting school choice legislation nationwide, state representatives are preparing to discuss the current system of accountability and whether Texas will support similar initiatives.
"The school choice [vouchers] issue will be vigorously debated next [legislative] session," Harless said. "Sen. [Dan] Patrick has said it will be a priority, the governor and lieutenant governor have also expressed an interest in moving the issue forward."
School vouchers issued by the government aim to offset the cost of private schools by allowing parents to receive subsidies for tuition or reimbursement for costs associated with home schooling. A school choice bill is in the early stages of being drafted with committees meeting during the interim, according to Patrick's office.
"We have had a meeting already and will issue a report of our findings," said Logan Spence, Patrick's chief of staff. "It will then be a matter of working with stakeholders to obtain some level of support within the communities."
Sources of funding, demographic limitations and other specifics are going to come down to what the legislators decide.