The Texas system of accountability allows underperforming schools to settle for mediocrity. To obtain the state’s Met Standard rating a school has to perform adequately on four performance indices that primarily use the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) results for measurement. Each index has a rather low threshold for performance and, as a result, thousands of kids are stuck in schools that merely strive for “good enough.” Sen. Larry Pryor’s SB 895 would be a game-changer for many of these students by providing them with school leaders who strive for excellence rather than the status quo.
Schools that fail to achieve a Met Standard rating are labeled as “Improvement Required” and placed in the Texas Accountability Intervention System (TAIS). In 2013-2014 733 schools earned this dubious distinction. TAIS mandates improvement planning and continuous monitoring by Texas Education Agency. If a school fails to achieve a Met Standard accountability rating in subsequent years it receives increasingly greater scrutiny.
While accountability is crucial the current system has fundamental flaws. First, the Met Standard threshold that schools are required to meet falls well short of promoting college and career readiness. The student growth index, for example, simply requires schools to be in the top 95 percent of all schools in Texas. This allows mediocre schools, such as Lee High School in Houston Independent School District, to receive passing marks despite poor outcomes. In 2013-2014 only 55 percent of its STAAR results were passing scores, including a dismal 38 percent for the English I exam.
Similarly, schools that are monitored by Texas Education Agency have little incentive to make fundamental changes. Schools that receive the Improvement Required designation only need to achieve Met Standard for two consecutive years to be taken off TAIS. Most schools are able to achieve this rather easily. In 2013-14 436 schools were rated Improvement Required for one year while only 225 received this rating for two consecutive years. This encourages Band-Aid solutions to problems that require surgery. Most underperforming schools need widespread changes in both leadership and instruction.
Moreover, it can take up to six years before a failing school is closed or repurposed. During this time parents have few options as transportation issues make school choice provisions effectively toothless. Houston Independent School District’s Kashmere High School, for example, has failed to meet state accountability standards for five consecutive years. In 2013-2014 it had a dismal 51 percent STAAR passing rate and a dropout rate of nearly 7 percent. Yet Kashmere High School continues to serve nearly 500 students.
SB 895 would rescue some of the state’s worst performing schools from this system of mediocrity. It establishes an opportunity school district (OSD) charged with overhauling some of the lowest performing schools in Texas. The state education commissioner would appoint OSD’s superintendent and decide which schools are to be transitioned to the district. The superintendent then has the option to manage schools directly or contract with non-profit education management organizations. Schools such as Kashmere High School would be transformed and returned to their original districts after no more than eight years under OSD.
The implementation of an opportunity school district would provide Texas with an effective accountability option to drive substantive reforms at failing schools. The district’s superintendent could partner with high-performing charter management organizations, such as KIPP and Uplift, that are adept at working with underserved populations. In 2013-2014 KIPP Houston High School had an overall STAAR passing rate of 94 percent despite serving a population that is 94 percent economically disadvantaged. Additionally, OSD school leaders would be granted greater autonomy over budgetary, instructional, and cultural matters allowing for greater innovation and efficiency. Unlike most traditional districts, funding would be tied directly to students, simultaneously incentivizing performance and holding principals accountable for results. If an OSD school fails to perform the commissioner has authority to return it to its traditional district at any time.
Texas would join Louisiana and Tennessee in using turnaround school districts to drive meaningful reform. New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD) has produced drastic results since its inception in 2005. Reason Foundation’s analysis found that by 2008 it was among the top 10 percent of districts in Louisiana for proficiency rate improvement. RSD is also closing achievement gaps and preparing students for college. Sixty-five percent of its African American males graduated on time compared to 59 percent for Louisiana. RSD’s rate of college-bound graduates has increased markedly from a mere 19 percent for the class of 2005 to over 51 percent for the class of 2014, indicating a significant increase in rigor and counseling.
Similarly, Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), which is led by YES Prep founder Chris Barbic, aims to take schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state to the top 25 percent within five years. Now in its third year, ASD has 23 schools and has built a culture of school empowerment and student achievement. With only two years of data it’s still too early to determine whether ASD is on track to hit Barbic’s ambitious goal. However, his “Whatever it Takes” mentality is precisely what failing schools in Texas need. Visionary leaders, not bureaucratic improvement plans, will push kids toward college and career readiness.
Students in failing schools deserve better than a system that settles for meeting baseline expectations. SB 895 would provide Texans with a real option for school accountability.
Aaron Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.