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TribBlog: Texas Schools Fixed!

In new public school ratings released this afternoon, three-fourths of the state's public schools — graded under a controversial formula called the Texas Projection Measure — now rank "exemplary" or "recognized," the highest two of four categories of performance. Less than two percent of schools are ranked "unacceptable."

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott in March, 2010.

In new public school ratings released this afternoon, three-fourths of the state's public schools — graded under a controversial formula called the Texas Projection Measure — now rank "exemplary" or "recognized," the highest two of four categories of performance. Fewer than 2 percent of schools are ranked "unacceptable." 

Excluding 647 schools that were not rated, the ratings broke down like this: 34 percent of schools are exemplary, 40 percent are recognized, 24 percent are acceptable and 1.6 percent are unacceptable.

The extraordinarily high rankings would seem to be joyous news to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott — and certainly to school faculties and administrators, who delight in hanging "exemplary" banners on their schoolhouse doors. Yet the news conference Scott put on today — nearly an hour long, with six guest speakers supporting the projections, and a gazillion statistics delivered in Scott's rapid-fire speaking style — took on the feel of a courtroom defense.

Yes, the numbers look good — too good — and that reality wasn't lost on Scott, who had apparently spent countless hours preparing for the questions. He knew the controversy over the projection measure — which started last year and has emerged again recently — could boil over in with the release of new and even more sterling school ratings. (And right in the middle of an election season where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White has hammered Scott's boss, Gov. Rick Perry, over alleged inflations of school performance and, particularly, dropout rates.) 

Simply put, the Texas Projection Measure gives schools credit for students who fail state tests if they are predicted to pass in subsequent years. The much-debated methodology aside, the formula has made school rankings skyrocket since being implemented last year, far beyond actual improvements in performance. 

This afternoon, Scott attacked news reports criticizing the formula directly: "We've found a high error rate in reports about the errors" in the projection measures. He attacked politicians, too: "This is an election year issue raised by a few people who want to put a damper on this day," Scott said.

Asked whether having three-fourths of schools clustered in the top ratings — and almost no schools failing — passed the common-sense test, Scott gave no ground. "What a lot of people want us to pass is a bell curve, but we rejected that," he said. "We wanted to give every campus and every district the opportunity to reach an absolute standard. ... As to the number of schools that are academically unacceptable, I think those out there that didn't make acceptable status this year would beg to differ that it's too easy."

The result of that strategy: Since the 2008 ratings, the number of schools ranked "exemplary" has ballooned from 1,000 to 2,624. Meanwhile, the number of merely "acceptable" schools has been slashed by more than half, from 3,508 to 1,456. The number of failing schools — always tiny as a percentage — also has been cut dramatically as well, from 202 to 125.

Indeed, had the Texas Projection Measure not been used, the number of failing schools would have jumped dramatically: More than 600 schools would have fallen into the failing category last year, and 331 more schools — which now rank "acceptable" because of the projection — would have fallen into the failing category this year. 

As it stands, just 125 Texas campuses failed to meet minimum standards. The other 8,310 campuses, Scott and the TEA figure, are doing fine.

Under the accountability system, such failing campuses, if they failure persists for several years, must either close their doors or submit to radical turnaround strategies, which often involve the forced transfers of staff and are carried out under the watchful eye of state regulators. Now their teachers and administrators can breathe a sigh of relief. Their students, meanwhile, still can't graduate without passing the test for real, projection or no projection.

Scott does concede one problem with the projection measure: It's just too difficult for lay people to understand. The preferred sound bite of critics is the that measure "gives credit for failure," Scott said. "No, we're giving credit for growth in projecting where students are going to be in an accurate way that gives student opportunity and intervention strategies for districts to help them succeed."

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