A number of Houston area schools with high state ratings exempted significant percentages of students from taking the standardized test that is central to the ratings.

The exemptions, while legitimate under state guidelines, have drawn renewed scrutiny in a study commissioned by the Governor’s Business Council.

In the study, analysts found a wide variation in the number of students that elementary schools exempt from taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills because they are in special education classes or have “limited English proficiency.” A similar study of middle school students is under way.

The analysis, done by education consultant Darvin Winick and University of Houston Professor Laurence A. Toenjes, highlights the number of students at each school who took the test, the number who were tested but whose scores didn’t count and the number who weren’t tested at all.

The Texas Education Agency rates schools as exemplary, recognized, acceptable or low-performing, based largely on TAAS test score results. But the rating does not take into account the students exempted from taking the test or whose scores didn’t count.

Winick said the percentages of exemptions vary widely, even among schools with similar student populations.

“The variation is so great as to be a concern,” Winick said. “We see highs and lows all over the state.”

For example, according to Winick’s analysis, the Houston Independent School District tested 58 percent of its elementary students for accountability purposes last year while Spring Branch tested 55 percent. Largely on the basis of those test score results, both districts received an “acceptable” rating.

Yet, both districts have a lower percentage of disadvantaged and Spanish- speaking students than the Mission Consolidated Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley, where the scores of 77 percent of the elementary students were figured into the district’s accountability rating.

Although income levels are not a factor in the accountability ratings, low-income student populations often perform more poorly on standardized tests than more affluent groups.

The district is 96 percent Hispanic, and a large Hispanic population often corresponds to a high percentage of students with limited English proficiency. But Mission tested more of its students than many districts with far smaller Hispanic populations, and still received a “recognized” rating.

“If we really wanted to play the game and exempt 5 percent more, then we could easily be exemplary,” said Victor Benavidez, director of assessment for the Mission schools. “But we’d rather not. I think there is more respect from the community if you are testing more kids even though your ratings are a little lower.”

Houston businessman Charles Miller, who chairs the council’s education committee, said the high exemption rates at some schools may be perfectly legitimate.

But at a time when there is a push to include more students in the state’s accountability system, he said, it is important to at least take a close look at the exemptions.

“The main thing is to put a spotlight on that,” Miller said. “If there is a variation that doesn’t have a good answer, then we are going to want the spotlight on it. That’s the goal.”

The number of exemptions has been declining statewide. But some say it’s still too easy for schools to keep their ratings high by not testing the students they know will do poorly. The determination is made largely by school-based committees. Some schools may test exempted students for diagnostic purposes, but their scores don’t count.

In HISD, Susan Sclafani, chief of staff for educational programs, said district officials will be comparing how well schools perform on the TAAS to how well they do on district-administered standardized tests that do not allow exemptions.

“Our concern is if this is a decision made in the best interest of children, then we need to provide some alternatives to them,” she said. “If it’s simply to inflate accountability levels and test scores, it’s a problem.”

State guidelines require schools to give exempted students a state-approved alternative assessment, which in HISD’s case is the Stanford Achievement Test or, in Spanish, the Aprenda. But the scores are not officially reported like TAAS scores, and they are not taken into account when the schools are rated.

More than a third of the students at two “exemplary” campuses – Scott and Isaacs elementary schools in HISD – were not tested on the TAAS last year, the report shows.

Scott exempted 44 percent of its students from taking the TAAS. Another 4 percent took the TAAS, but their scores did not count because the students were in special education or were new to the district.

Principal Artice Hedgemon said most of the students who were exempted at Scott have limited proficiency in English. According to state guidelines, students can be exempted for up to three years if they aren’t proficient in English. Although the state has developed a Spanish version of the TAAS for third- and fourth-graders, Hedgemon said the Scott students were not tested in Spanish because they weren’t taught in Spanish.

“We follow the guidelines,” Hedgemon said, “and they are quite clear.”

Isaacs, also an “exemplary” school, did not test 34 percent of its students. Principal Leon Pettis Jr. said most had limited English proficiency. Another 8.7 percent were tested, but their scores were not figured into the school’s accountability rating.

Certainly, Isaacs and Scott in HISD are not the only schools to exempt large percentages of students, particularly if they are not yet proficient in English.

Spring Branch Elementary, in the Spring Branch Independent School District, received a “recognized” rating last year after exempting 75 percent of its mostly Hispanic students from the state’s accountability system. Fifty-five percent of the school’s students weren’t given the TAAS, and 20 percent took the test but their scores did not count.

Becky Anderson, facilitator for student assessment in the Spring Branch school district, said it’s only fair to exempt students who haven’t mastered the language.

“If I just put myself in a child’s place, I don’t think it’s fair to assess children in a language they do not speak or understand,” said Anderson. “I think they should be assessed somehow, and we do that.”

But others worry that unless all children’s test scores are part of a school’s accountability rating, too many will be allowed to slip through the cracks.

Noelia Garza, director of HISD’s bilingual education, said she would support eliminating all exemptions except for new arrivals from foreign countries. Schools exempt students from the high-stakes test because the guidelines permit it, she said.

“All these issues with too many exemptions, too many this, too many that, well it’s allowed. The system allows it, and every district is using that” she said. “If they would eliminate it at the state level, we wouldn’t have any issues with this. We probably wouldn’t have as many exemplary schools, but we would have a whole lot more focus on instruction for all these kids.”

Indeed, the state is making changes in the law to prevent so many exemptions.

The state Legislature voted last year to include special education students’ test scores in calculating the accountability ratings. The scores will be included beginning in the spring of 1999, and the state is required to develop other assessments for children whose disabilities prevent them from taking the TAAS.

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who authored the legislation, said he heard testimony that schools were boosting their special education count just before the TAAS was administered.

“I believe there are schools who have over-identified special education kids in order to get big exemptions,” said Hochberg.

Also, the state is phasing in a Spanish version of the TAAS that in 1999 will become a part of the school accountability rating. The test was first given to third- and fourth-graders last year.

At the same time, the state is developing a new test called a Reading Proficiency Test in English that will be used to measure the progress of students who are not yet fluent in English.

State Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, said he plans to reintroduce in 1999 a measure that would end all exemptions for students with limited English proficiency. The bill stalled in the 1997 legislative session .

Meanwhile, Winick, the education consultant, said it’s valuable for the public to keep close tabs on exemptions when considering how schools are rated.

“It’s just a little more sunlight on the school system,” Winick said.

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