Passing Fancy


As Texas kids start readying their backpacks and pencils, parents must be a little concerned—a recent spotlight on our education accountability system has revealed some major flaws. Chief among them: Why are we letting districts count failing kids towards their pass rates?

Not long ago, lawmakers and educators all clamored for some way to reward those schools that were improving, while still falling short on performance. Performance growth, many said, should count somewhere in the accountability system, so teachers aren’t punished for taking on students who are already woefully behind and helping them improve. In response, the Texas Education Agency implemented the now–infamous Texas Projection Measure, a statistical tool that is supposed to predict whether students will pass the state’s standardized test based on their current scores and the school they attend.

For instance, a student who fails the state math test may still count toward the school’s passing rate in math, if the TPM shows she is on track to pass in the next three years. However, the student gets no credit and no one goes back to see if she ever actually did pass.

Rep. Scott Hochberg almost caused riots when he questioned the accuracy of the predictions and the logic of rewarding schools that are still failing. Newspapers were quick to follow: the Houston Chronicle’s Rick Casey referred to the model as “statistical chicanery” while The Dallas Morning News called it “fatally flawed.”

As everyone damns the measure, we should remember the original goals of such “growth” models: to credit those teachers who work with disadvantaged students and help them get on track.

Imagine this scenario: A teacher has several students who received almost no credit on their standardized tests the year before. Through effort and hard work, she helps them get a much better score—but a score that remains well below the passing level. We can point to the student before and after, and see that the teacher made impressive progress.

Yet nowhere in our current system do we reward this growth. Unless the kids come close to the pass mark, we treat almost all failures alike. In a lot of schools around the state, teachers face a classroom with many students woefully behind and inadequately prepared. We’ve all heard the stories—the students in middle and high school who struggle with basic math and literacy. If we want to get more good teachers into such tough classrooms, we need to credit those who are showing results, even if those results aren’t good enough.