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Judgment Day

There's a day in July that school districts eye with a mixture of anticipation and dread. This year, it's on the 29th, when the Texas Education Agency will publicly release the accountability ratings for the state's more than 1,000 districts.

Sophomore student Miguel Nava works on a science experiment at the San Juan Idea Public Schools Tuesday morning in San Juan,…

There's a day in July that school districts eye with a mixture of anticipation and dread. This year, it's on the 29th, when the Texas Education Agency will publicly release the accountability ratings for the state's more than 1,000 districts.

Scores on standardized tests factor heavily into the ratings, which categorize schools as "Exemplary," "Recognized," "Acceptable" and "Unacceptable" based on financial and academic performance. Districts have already received their test scores privately, so they largely know what's coming. But whether or not they expect to explain low or decreased ratings to angry parents and taxpayers, there's an added complication this time around.

Last summer, prior to the ratings release, the education community was in uproar as news broke that the formulas the TEA used to calculate ratings included a mechanism that falsely boosted student test scores. Instead of using a student's actual score on a test, the TEA factored in what was called the Texas Projection Measure, which gauged students' future test scores based on a campus-wide average. After a flurry of harsh public criticism led by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and the vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, the agency decided to release districts' ratings with and without the measure. Though TEA chief Robert Scott suggested he might discontinue the measure, he didn't give districts the final word until April 22 of this year, when he told superintendents that their 2011 ratings would not include it. 

"This was a difficult decision, but given the public opposition to using a projection measure, including a unanimous vote against further use of test score projections during recent floor debate of the Texas House of Representatives on House Bill 500, I decided that stopping the use of the TPM was necessary to preserve the integrity of the accountability system and public education as a whole," he wrote in a letter with that date.

All of this comes at a time when many school leaders will be approaching voters about raising local property tax rates to help cushion the blow of the $4 billion reduction in state revenue. Jackie Lain, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards, said that the lack of public explanation about how the measure would affect accountability ratings from the TEA put districts in a difficult position. 

"Districts are facing this real dilemma," she said. "They have in some cases significantly lower accountability ratings they will have to explain to their community." She said the message they will have to deliver in response is complicated: that in most cases, it's not that their achievement has changed — rather, the way the ratings are calculated has changed. 

Hochberg said he wasn't worried about districts' transition to sans-TPM accountability ratings because superintendents have known what to expect when they received both ratings last summer. He added: "The measure was only used for about two years, and so this is not an earth-shattering sort of change. The ratings released show what students actually do, not what they were predicted to do."

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