Student progress measure is ‘labeling success a failure,’ school officials say

School administrators call it “index two.” It’s the number the Texas Education Agency uses to measure the progress students make on reading and math tests from year to year. But for the 289 schools across Texas who missed state guidelines for index two this year, the number can overshadow student success in other areas.

“When you have schools that make gains and score higher than they did last year but still miss on improvement, it’s just disheartening,” said Faith-Ann Cheek, assistant superintendent at Bonham Independent School District. Both Finley-Oates and Evans elementaries in BISD were rated “improvement required” by the Texas Education Agency this year because of index two scores.

Student improvement is one of four indexes the TEA uses to determine whether or not a school meets state standards. Missing the mark in any of those four categories prevents a school from passing standards. But index two has very little to do with the number of students passing the end-of-year STAAR, or State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

Instead, the score is based on individual student progress on the STAAR and similar tests from one year to the next. Every year, a student must answer more questions correctly in order to count as “met progress” or “exceeded progress.” There are exceptions — students who score in the very highest percentile automatically count as “exceeded progress,” and no high schools were assessed on index two this year because of changes in the English / language arts test — but those year-to-year comparisons are the sole measure of index two.

This means that even if a school has a large majority of students pass the STAAR tests, if those students get about the same number of questions right as they did on the previous year’s tests, that school will get a failing grade from the TEA.

“What it is is labeling success a failure, and that is the frustrating part especially for the staff on those campuses that worked so hard to get those kids to pass,” said Cheek. “It’s like scoring a touchdown, but you find out you don’t get the points because you didn’t cross the goal line fast enough.”

Tyson Bennett, assistant superintendent at Sherman ISD, also saw two of his elementaries miss standards because of index two scores. He said that measuring progress is a valuable metric for schools, but the state needs to refine their expectations.

“I am a tremendous proponent of looking for growth in students, but we are talking about two different things: how accountability is applied to growth versus the concept of growth,” Bennett said. “I am all for the concept of measuring growth and progress. I just think how accountability is applied to growth needs to be reexamined so that you are comparing like campuses.”

Different school districts group different grades into elementary schools, which creates a problem, Bennett said. STAAR testing begins in third grade, so the first year progress can be measured is fourth grade. For elementaries that teach students up to fifth or sixth grade, this isn’t much of a problem. But for schools that teach kindergarten through fourth grade students, the progress of those fourth graders can make or break the entire campus.

“You can be really hurt as a K-4 campus if you have one lower than expected year in terms of performance,” said Bennett. “It can be devastating to a campus that only has one shot at index two.”

Finley-Oates Elementary in Bonham is an extreme example of this case. The school only reaches through third grade, so STAAR progress cannot be determined. But the TEA can also look at the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System, a standardized test given to English language learners. A handful second graders at Finley-Oates had taken that exam last year, so the TEA had data to compare. The agency gave the entire school an index two score based on the progress made by 16 English language learners, Bonham officials said.

“There are always system changes, but we also have to follow what is in law,” TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said of that situation. She said that every year, policy is reviewed, but the state requires student progress to be measured.

“Because of the requirements that are in law about how students shall be college or career ready once they graduate high school, we are looking at how they are going to perform in the future,” Culbertson said.

As to concerns that elementaries serving different grades should be treated differently, Culbertson said index two’s focus on individual students is valid no matter how many grades there are in the school.

“If you’re in third grade and you move to fourth grade, but you are not showing any form of improvement, then that’s what is important,” Culbertson said. “It shows if the student is just getting by, or if there is actual learning occurring.”

For Bennett and Cheeks, the only thing left to do is to try to improve next year. SISD is analyzing student data to find areas where students need help, and will focus on filling in those gaps in learning throughout the year. In Bonham, the district is implementing a campus-wide extra enrichment and instruction period to focus on giving both low-performing and passing kids extra attention.

“We are going to continue to shoot for it,” Cheeks said. “We want to continue to see gains in proficiency and obviously we want all of our students to be able to grow. We’ll just keep our eye on the ball.”


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