When Children At Risk first started ranking Texas public schools five years ago, it only named the top performers, wary of embarrassing educators and students at campuses that didn’t measure up.
The hesitance emerged even though widespread educational failure had prompted the project in the first place, says Robert Sanborn, the president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit advocacy and research organization. The rankings grew out of a conference at Rice University that focused on high school graduation and featured John Hopkins researcher Robert Balfouz, who talked about “dropout factories.”
“At first, we didn’t want to make any high schools look bad,” Sanborn says. “But we’ve changed that over the years. What we’ve found is that [spotlighting low-performing schools] proved to be a tremendous advocacy tool for parents. They can ask, ‘Why isn’t my school better?'”
So now, the group’s rankings — including the ones we’re publishing today, for most public schools in Texas — lay out the worst schools along with the best and every gradation in between. That’s a stark contrast from the state's accountability system, which simply groups schools in one of four broad performance categories: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable. Though Children at Risk uses some of the same data that are the basis for the Texas Education Agency's "ratings," it does something that TEA doesn't: It gives every school a hard number that compares its performance with that of every other school.
“You see the best in the state and the worst in the state,” Sanborn says. “This isn’t a PR campaign — they are straight-up rankings. … We used to have [district] superintendents angry with us, arguing this isn’t the right way to measure, but they’ve gotten away from that.”
Using the Children At Risk data, The Texas Tribune has built a searchable database to help parents judge schools and help educators and policymakers examine the relative performance of groups of schools and districts. And we’ve constructed a detailed page for each school, separately laying out the data used to compute the rankings of more than 5,800 campuses.
One major caveat: More than 3,400 public schools are not ranked for a variety of reasons. Many schools, more than one might imagine, have odd grade configurations that do not fit neatly under the headings "elementary," "middle" and "high" and thus can't easily be ranked against schools in those categories. Children At Risk also excludes alternative schools, which typically serve students kicked out of traditional schools. Also not ranked are high schools with fewer than 100 students in grades 9 through 12 and those without a graduating class of 2008. Campuses with missing data are also excluded. (Available data on all excluded schools is available in this spreadsheet.)
For the majority of schools that are inlcuded, the Children at Risk rankings are complex in their analysis and specific in their results. They blend 12 different measures for elementary schools, 10 for middle schools and 14 for high schools — including performance on TAKS, ACT and SAT scores, attendance, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, attendance rates and graduation rates, which Sanborn said are weighted heavily. Also taken into account is the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in every school: More credit is given in the rankings to those with higher percentages.
By comparison, the state's ratings rely almost entirely on the percentage of students passing state TAKS tests and report the performance of schools only in categories so broad as to dilute their value in helping parents see the performance of schools clearly.
Here’s the bottom line of what the state tells the public about Texas public schools:
* 2,158 schools, or 26 percent, are “exemplary.”
* 2,943 schools, or 35 percent, are “recognized.”
* 2,316 schools, or 28 percent, are “acceptable.”
* 245 schools — just 3 percent — are “unacceptable.”
Another 659 schools are designated “not rated: other” on account of instructional time lost to Hurricane Ike.
Surely some of the more than 2,000 “acceptable” schools are a lot more acceptable than others, but the state gives parents no way to find them without taking on intensive database analysis projects of which few are capable or inclined. Imagine how the story line would change if the NCAA swapped out rankings of college football teams for similar ratings: “After this week’s loss, the Texas Longhorns were rated 'athletically acceptable.' That’s unchanged after last week’s victory.” Yet that’s exactly how Texas assesses every public school.
Muddying matters further, the Texas Projection Measure — a controversial TEA formula that credits schools for students who don’t pass state tests but are expected to in future years — pushed hundreds of schools into higher categories during the last school year. The number of “exemplary schools” doubled. (Despite complaints over the validity of the measure, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott last week approved continuing its use.)
And the state only measures schools on the percentage of their students passing the TAKS test at a minimum level. No attention is paid to the percentage passing at the “commended” level — the highest of what are, again, three broad categories (“did not meet standard, “met standard” and “commended”). By contrast, Children At Risk researchers grade schools using the percentage scoring at the “commended” level, setting the bar higher and providing valuable additional information to parents.
Additionally, the state's ratings do not consider the actual scale scores on the test: the underlying numbers — representing the proportion of questions answered correctly — used to place students in those performance categories. So a student who passed by a single point is counted simply as passing, no different from a student who blew past the cut score by a wide margin. The only other academic measures used to rate schools in Texas, the completion rate and the annual dropout rate, are two sides of the same coin — but neither is considered the best measure of graduation from Texas high schools.
Of course, no single statistical measure or combination of measures can fully answer inherently complicated questions. But we at the Trib believe the more data the public can access about public schools — and the easier it is to examine and understand — the better. Which is why we'll be publshing additional school data sets as they be come available.