After five years of school ratings, pupils' results seem to be rising in national test scores. Tim Cornwell reports.
The use of ratings which grade schools largely by pupil results appears to be spreading. Legislation is on the table to introduce a system to California, inspired partly by results in another major state, Texas.
Accountability is currently a buzzword in American education. Schools rated as low-performing institutions are targeted for special assistance, and may in the worst cases be at risk of a state takeover. Teachers in top-scoring schools sometimes get cash bonuses.
Texas, with its conservative political culture, stands out as one of the few big players in the US where ratings are well-established and widely-accepted. More than 1,000 school districts and 6,000 schools are given annual ratings from "exemplary", "acceptable" to "unacceptable" or "low-performing".
The system has been in place five years. A major US national education survey run by the magazine Education Week, cited evidence that student scores have risen significantly on both state and national tests, and has sparked interest nationwide.
Other southern states like Kentucky have adopted accountability systems, and they are on the agenda for an education conference in Atlanta, Georgia, next month. Texas officials have testified twice in hearings in the California legislature on new plans in that state.
Ratings pose more problems in the US than they would in Britain - where the chief inspector of schools is planning to publish comparisons of similar establishments. In the US, where schools are primarily run and funded by local districts and states, and which prizes local independence, there has traditionally been strong resistance to imposing the kind of standards that can be used to rate schools.
In the California State Assembly, education chairman Kerry Mazzoni has introduced a California Comprehensive School Accountability Act.
"Throughout the nation, states have implemented strong outcomes-based accountability systems to improve the performance of their schools," the Act notes. It would establish criteria in California to identify "required improvement schools". Principals would have to single out students falling behind, and enlist one or more "distinguished educators" to help out.
In Texas, school ratings are published each August, and made available on the Internet (http:www.tea.state.tx.us). Last year, a record 680 schools and 64 districts earned the "exemplary" ratings, while in a record low, only seven districts were found "academically unacceptable" and 76 schools "low-performing".
Texas officials say competition becomes intense, with anguished phone calls from schools which narrowly miss stepping up a grade. "When you start to categorise schools, you really do start to get attention," said Cherry Kugle, a senior director for statistical reporting in schools.
Schools can appeal against their ratings, but usually only on the basis of statistical error. They are narrowly based on schools' performance in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, and on drop-out and attendance rates. The "exemplary" rating requires a 90 per cent pass rate in the TAAS. To avoid the lowest rating, at least 35 per cent must pass.
In 1996-97, 41 per cent passed, a dramatic increase from the 22 per cent in 1993-94. Some critics say that results have been fudged, with schools pushing low-scoring pupils into programmes for the learning-disabled. Teachers unions worry that teachers, like schools, may soon be rated.
But national test results show that Texas pupils have gone from below to above the national average since 1992. African-American and Hispanic pupils also perform better than average.