- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

DALLAS (AP) - About 90 percent of districts and 85 percent of schools in Texas met the state’s minimum education standards, education officials announced Friday as they continue overhauling an accountability system that will eventually hand out letter grades.

Because the Texas Education Agency has been tinkering with the system to reduce an emphasis on standardized test scores and calculate other factors, these latest ratings aren’t directly comparable to the ones released last year. Meanwhile, that so many districts and schools statewide met the minimum standard was no accident since many facets of the new ratings were designed to ensure failure rates of no more than 5 percent.

The ratings still rely heavily on student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR exam, but also take into account how well districts are closing achievement gaps between minority and economically disadvantaged youngsters and their white or wealthier counterparts.

The state rated more than 1,200 districts and more than 8,500 schools, including charter schools and alternative education programs. About 950 public school districts met the standard and about 160 charter operators met the standard.

About 440 elementary schools needed improvement compared to 143 middle schools and 103 high schools. There were 61 schools that include kindergarten through 12th grade all in one campus that need improvement.

“While the 2014 numbers are positive, the work continues in districts across our state to meet and exceed increasing state standards and the expectations of their local communities,” Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a news release.

Besides achievement gaps, the new ratings are designed to better take into account graduation rates, performance on college-entrance exams and how well students are prepared to go to college or directly into a career or vocation upon leaving high school.

Schools and districts making the fastest progress in closing achievement gaps with minorities and students from low-income families will get a bump in their ratings. Williams says this emphasis is important since 65 percent of Texas children are either black or Hispanic and 60 percent come from impoverished households, the most at-risk groups for dropping out of school.

Not everyone is thrilled with the still-evolving system. The Texas Association of Business, a powerful lobbying group, has long complained that Texas’ graduation standards are too lenient and that the rating system has now been tweaked to make mediocre performances by schools and districts look like improvements.

“Only 9 percent of schools are being ranked as low performing under this system,” said Bill Hammond, the association’s CEO. “These ratings allow our education system to appear successful while the true story is that more students are ill-prepared to enter college or establish a career upon graduation. “

This year’s reports included only ratings of “met standard” or “improvement required.” Those districts and schools meeting standards could then get “distinctions” in several areas such as closing achievement gaps, postsecondary readiness and academic achievement in core subjects.

More than 4,400 campuses earned some type of distinction designation. Four hundred schools earned a distinction designation in all categories evaluated for the campus.

Beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year, school districts will earn an A through F letter grade. Texas lawmakers say the system, which has been used in other states, will make it easier for parents and students to understand how their schools and districts measure up.

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