By Candace Birkelbach
Killeen Daily Herald
Some people accuse school districts of spending too much time focusing on state exams instead of on their students' needs.
A plea to modify the state accountability system, which is mainly derived from scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, has been made by some public educators and state legislators.
Jim Hawkins, Killeen Independent School District superintendent, has said he doesn't think the current system encourages the growth needed for students to learn.
Board member Mike Helm said sometimes, testing is emphasized too much and schools spend too much time prepping for the exams.
"We still need assessment, but it needs to be appropriate," Hawkins said. "We've outgrown the old system."
Hawkins, along with many other educators and legislators, favors phasing to a growth model that measures the increase in student success from year to year.
Differences in state and federal systems
The state system gives school districts ratings based on student TAKS scores in reading, writing, math, social studies and science. Each district and campus receive a rating of "exemplary," "recognized," academically acceptable" or "academically unacceptable."
KISD was rated "academically acceptable" for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years.
To reach an academically acceptable rating, schools must have a passing rate of 65 percent for reading, 65 percent for writing, 65 percent for social studies, 45 percent for math and 40 percent for science, according to this year's Texas Education Agency accountability manual.
The national accountability system gives adequate yearly progress ratings, under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Under that system, campuses and districts either meet the ratings or they do not.
To earn a label of "meets AYP," schools must test at least 95 percent of their students, and at least 60 percent of the test-takers must pass the reading portion of the exam, while 50 percent must pass the math exam. These standards were raised from last year by 7 and 8 percentage points for reading and math, respectively.
Each year, the standards for what makes a school acceptable changes for both the state and federal measurement systems.
Criticism has been addressed over the misalignment of the state and federal accountability systems.
Hawkins said that with so many different systems that come up with their own recipes for success, it is difficult to hold districts properly accountable.
"Accountability ratings are only one indicator of success, and it's arrogant to think that the system is precise enough to determine if a school is acceptable or not," Hawkins said after receiving TAKS results in August. "It is very important to use the assessment to know what area to improve on, but we focus on learning, not just test scores."
Reforming the system
The 80th session of the Texas Legislature created a 15-member committee to investigate the effectiveness of the current system.
The committee was created to study dozens of items related to public school accountability, including indicators, rewards, reflection of the mission of public education, meeting public expectations and the effectiveness of the system.
The committee, consisting of legislators, educators and community members, will conduct a comprehensive review and provide a report with recommendations by next December.
TEA, which is responsible for reporting the accountability ratings, also has a focus group to review things that need to be changed in the current system.
The focus group looks at the current requirements, then makes recommendations to the education commissioner, said DeEtta Culbertson, TEA spokesperson. Culbertson said the system is constantly evolving.
The 2007 Commissioner's Accountability Advisory Committee is researching the inclusion of a growth factor so that campuses and districts demonstrating significant gain on commended performance could attain a "commended" recognition, as stated on the TEA Web site.
The Web Site states that the standards and criteria for implementing a growth model need further study by the focus group.
Hawkins said a growth model would be helpful for districts to compare themselves over time. He also suggested looking at multiple indicators to measure success.
KISD has created its own 45 indicators of success and determines growth targets each year.
This year, the district met 21 out of 45 indicators, an increase from meeting 13 last year.
An example from this system
For the reading portion of the TAKS test, 88 percent of students passed in 2006. The district set a goal to increase that percentage by 1 percent for 2007. The district met and exceeded its goal because it had 90 percent of students pass the reading portion in 2007.
One target the district did not hit was its completion rate. In 2006, 94 percent of students in grades 9-12 completed; 86 percent completed in 2007. The district has set a goal to have a 95 percent completion rate by 2010.
Making the change
Hawkins said KISD is not taking concrete steps to amend the current system but rather is working on a grass-roots movement with other community organizations.
To do this, the district is coordinating with the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce public education committee and invited speaker Sir Ken Robinson to discuss the need for change in the education system.
Robinson stressed the need for creativity and innovation in order to make lessons more engaging.
Hawkins said educators enjoyed Robinson's presentation but wondered how the district would implement the ideas he suggested.
"There is a support for change but not much consensus of what needs to be changed," Hawkins said.
Community members and parents need to get involved in order to create change, he added.
Helm also criticized the way students are educated.
"The current school model doesn't give much flexibility," Helm said. "We need to quit worrying about how fast students can learn (information on the TAKS test) and just see if they can learn it."
Helm said that because the state funds public schools and sets most of the regulations, the education process is difficult to change.
Helm said accountability is like a double-edged sword.
"There's a strong need for accountability, but kids today are tested to death," Helm said. "The pendulum has swung a little too far."
Contact Candace Birkelbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7553