Friday, July 30, 2010

A Tale Of Two School Districts

It was the best of scores. It was the worst of scores. Too dramatic? OK, how about this? Woot! Phhttttttttt! This week, the Richardson ISD (RISD) announced that the school district was judged "Recognized" in the Accountability ratings of the Texas Education Agency. "Recognized" doesn't sound like much, but it's a really big deal. The RISD is rightly proud when it trumpets the achievement:

"This is the fifth consecutive year RISD has earned the rating. RISD is the largest, most diverse district in Texas to have achieved Recognized status for five consecutive years. Every RISD campus received a rating of Exemplary (42 schools) or Recognized (11 schools)."

On the other hand, everyone knows that the Accountability ratings are not the be-all and end-all of academic accountability. The system defines the floor, not the ceiling. Inspired by the goal of "no child left behind," the scoring system (TAKS) severely penalizes a school district if any socio-economic subgroup fails to reach minimal levels, that is, if any subgroup is left behind. You can't hide your problems. The RISD takes the ratings seriously and the results show it. Not content, the RISD is moving beyond the TAKS to improve other aspects of education such as career and technology programs, talented and gifted programs, advanced placement programs, etc. In fact, last year, they parted ways with a former superintendent over a difference of vision on this very subject. Apparently, the board of trustees wanted ..., well, as a Dickens character might put it, "more."

After the jump, another school district's worst of times.

Superintendent Heath Burns of the Abilene ISD (AISD) had the unpleasant responsibility to inform his community that the AISD was officially judged "Unacceptable" by the Texas Education Agency. Why? Because, as the superintended explained, the AISD failed "to graduate at least 75 percent of each and every one of our racial/ethnic subgroups of students." AISD's Hispanic subgroup had a 74.1 percent high school graduation rate. So, even though overall the district has a 86.3 percent completion rate, there's a single subgroup left behind.

Now, there are two ways to react to this news. The first is exemplified by local business owner Randy Pool:

"You're 'unacceptable' on a technicality, but who's going to dig that deep? We locally who live here realize how good the schools are doing in addressing some of the critical needs of students, but this is kind of like losing the championship by one point or a bad call."

No, it wasn't a technicality or a bad call. You lost. Maybe it was by one point in one subgroup, but it wasn't unfair. To his credit, Pool goes on to say, "You still lost and that's what people will see, and it has to be addressed with vigor."

That's the attitude of the superintendent. Even though the AISD will appeal the rating, Burns said, "What's more important to me is that we recognize we have a pretty serious problem and we will work hard to get it fixed and we won't be in this situation next year." Hooray for the AISD's superintendent.

The school district attempted to address the problem in the past, in part with a bond election for a "Career Tech High School" that voters defeated. If not a Career Tech High School, then what? This "Unacceptable" rating should be a wake-up call to the community. Underneath the averages, there's a problem that can't be ignored any longer. It's headline news now.

If the Accountability ratings prevent school districts from burying the problems while featuring the highlights and skating by on the averages, then I say hooray for the Texas Education Agency's Accountability ratings. It's an embarrassment now, but the AISD will be a better school district because of it. I'm not sure the same could have been said if AISD had just squeaked by with another "Acceptable" rating.

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