Frequently Asked Questions

If your question is not answered here, contact us.

What’s New?

TXSmartSchools has a new look and home. It is maintained by Texans for Positive Economic Policy and administered by Texas A&M University.

While its goals remain the same, TXSmartSchools improves on FAST by using the latest available data and adding refinements to the value-added measures for cost and performance factors that are beyond school district control – which results in fairer comparisons. See the About TXSmartSchools page for more information.

Like FAST, TXSmartSchools uses value added measures that create better, more apples-to-apples, indicators for comparing spending and academic growth.

Academic Progress:

The goal is to measure the extent that districts and schools have contributed to the growth of student academic achievement. It’s easy, but not very accurate, to use whole-school performance measures, like passing rates, to compare schools. That tells you more about the attributes of the student population than how the school helped them. Similarly, adjusting a school’s overall score by its overall poverty measure is an unsophisticated method that fails to take into account the many student characteristics that influence achievement and are beyond the control of schools.

TXSmartScores looks at the millions of individual student test results and adjusts them at the student level for factors like poverty, special education status, language proficiency, and prior performance. These individual progress measures are then attributed to the responsible schools and averaged over a three year period to minimize short-term influences. The results are a very accurate measure of each school’s effect on student academic progress.

Spending:

TXSmartSchools recognizes that school districts operate in very different cost environments. Schools in high cost of living areas generally face higher costs, as do schools serving more challenging student bodies. Districts with rapidly increasing student enrollments may need to open new schools, while districts with stable or declining populations do not have that costly pressure to grow, but may face other challenges.

When comparing school spending TXSmartSchools uses only the core operating expenditures per student that:

  • Exclude food and transportation
  • Exclude construction costs and debt
  • Adjust for shared service expenditures

TXSmartSchools also creates comparison groups, called Fiscal Peers, to enable apples-to-apples comparisons among school districts and campuses to identify those getting the best results under similar circumstances. We use well-accepted and statistically sophisticated methods that match districts and campuses with similar labor costs, enrollments, geographic size, and student characteristics.

Then instead of creating a single ranked list from 1 to 1,000+, TXSmartSchools uses its academic progress and spending measures to identify the five-star districts and campuses that are both high achieving and low spending compared to their Fiscal Peers.

See the TXSmartSchools - About the Data page for more information.

We are committed to continuous improvement and welcome feedback. In response to insights obtained from experts in the field and from school districts, we have made the following refinements to our value-added measures:

  • We pay closer attention the effect of limited language proficiency on academic achievement across different grade levels.
  • We account for differences in the accuracy of student/student body’s economic status measures between elementary and high schools. Eligible older students are less likely to participate in free and reduced school lunch programs than younger students.
  • We have introduced some new special categories of schools in our matching strategy for Fiscal Peers.
  • We have added student mobility as one of the considerations for picking Fiscal Peers. Highly mobile students may not stay long enough to get counted in a school’s academic performance measures, but they can absorb some significant resources while they are enrolled.
  • We use newly updated measures of regional labor cost differences when selecting Fiscal Peers.

Because differences in student populations can be extreme, TXSmartSchools groups some districts into special categories which are most fairly compared only with other districts that are very similar in one key dimension. Those categories include alternative education districts, high level special education, very big, and very small districts. For this latest edition, we have created two new special categories of K-8 districts that are compared (on the financial side) only to one another—those with very low enrollments, and those with very high shares of limited-English-proficiency students.

Ratings can change for a number of reasons – when any of the underlying measures change for your district or school, or when they change for the financial comparison group (Fiscal Peers). Factors may include changes in relative student progress, student demographics, or core operational spending.

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General

TXSmartSchools can be used to identify Texas school districts that produce high achievement while maintaining cost-effective operations among their Fiscal Peers, based on academic and financial performance indicators developed especially for this purpose.

We made every effort to compare school districts and campuses on a level playing field – a difficult task, given Texas’ great size and diversity. We consulted with public education stakeholders throughout the state, and we worked with nationally-recognized experts in the field of school finance and student achievement.

TXSmartSchools assesses districts and campuses based on the academic progress of their individual students after adjusting for factors outside a district’s control that affect student performance, such as student demographics like economic disadvantage and limited English proficiency.

When comparing district and campus spending, TXSmartSchools groups districts and campuses into sets of “Fiscal Peers” – up to 40 districts or campuses that operate in similar cost environments, based on factors that affect the cost of providing education, such as regional wages, district size, and student characteristics. Its comparisons use only core operating expenses.

Once a set of Fiscal Peers is established, each district and campus is placed into one of five “spending index” categories, from “very low” to “very high”. Academic progress scores are then matched with the spending index to create an overall TXSmartSchools rating, ranging from one to five stars. This is not a top to bottom ranking of all 1,000-plus districts, because we do not think that is useful or accurate.

No single ranking of school district performance could account for all the factors that affect student achievement and operational cost-effectiveness. TXSmartSchools is unique in that it views school performance through multiple “lenses” — mechanisms that take into account of the wide variety of circumstances in which Texas districts operate, some of them beyond the schools’ control.

For this reason, TXSmartSchools does NOT provide a 1 to 1,200 ranking of district performance. Rather, districts and campuses are grouped into fiscal peer groups for spending comparison purposes and ranked within those groups. Each fiscal peer group is no larger than 40.

To ensure that all school districts are rated on a level playing field, our academic progress measures involve over 30 variables (including student demographics factors such as, economic disadvantage and limited English proficiency at each grade level), while our spending methodology controls for many more variables (such as labor costs, enrollment, and geographic size) to determine the most relevant fiscal peer groups. This method allows us to make fair and accurate appraisals of relative school district and campus success.

No. TXSmartSchools is not a top-to-bottom ranking of every school district or campus in Texas. Given the vast differences in funding, student characteristics and community conditions across the state, such comparisons are neither plausible nor useful.

Instead, it examines Texas school districts and campuses by two measures: academic progress, as measured by student performance over time on the available Texas test data; and relative cost-effectiveness, as measured by the spending index.

The measure of academic progress — based on three years’ worth of test results and adjusted for a series of factors affecting student performance — can be used for statewide comparisons.

The spending index, by contrast, compares district and campus performance to that of a series of up to 40 Fiscal Peers with comparable socioeconomic and financial characteristics, to ensure a level playing field.

Our star ratings combine the measures of academic progress and cost-effectiveness to identify Texas school districts and campuses with the highest relative academic progress and lowest relative spending (with spending compared only within their fiscal peer group).

While it has been reported that some school districts have made errors in the data they submit—Sparticularly when it comes to campus-level spending—we have taken steps to ensure that those mistakes don’t radically affect the accuracy of the data. We rely on data given to us by TEA which was originally submitted by Texas schools.

Perfection isn’t the goal. After all, within a group of Fiscal Peers, you’ll never get every peer identical on every peer dimension. Every school district has some aspect in which it is unique. However, districts also have much in common with one another, and our methodology organizes the tsunami of available data into a comparison tool that people can use to make informed decisions.

One of the interesting data points that emerges is that so many school districts deal with the same challenges and encounter the same results.

This is an informational resource, not a stick to beat districts into submission. First and foremost it is a way to identify role model schools who are achieving the best results in a cost effective way. We hope schools will want to know how they stack up against their peers, and that those achieving less impressive results will seek out the role models to learn from them.

We believe that knowledge is power. To that end, we have to call “balls and strikes,” but this system has never been intended as a tool to strike a district out. Instead, we seek to identify and affirm schools that are excelling, then share their best practices with other districts.

We are committed to continually improving the quality of our data and the manner in which we interpret it to ensure all Texans get the best possible education for their tax dollar.

The manner in which House Bill 5 reduced the number of end of course exams has made it increasingly difficult to get an accurate read on student achievement in Texas highs schools. To counter that, we’re working to get access to ACT/SAT scores as a way to continue measuring progress. While we’re currently unable to access them (they’re not in the accessible warehouse) we’ll persist in our attempts to get them to provide the most accurate possible picture.

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Resources

If you want to improve your school’s or district’s FAST rating, there are several steps you can take:

  1. Use the TXSmartSchools reporting tool to compare your school or district with five-star schools or districts that are similar to yours in size and/or other factors such as geographic location, demographics, etc. Review their spending patterns, student achievement statistics, Texas Education Agency accountability ratings and more.
  2. Review the Smart Practices to see the innovative ways schools and districts across Texas are saving costs and improving student achievement. Seek ways to interact with other schools and districts to learn about the methods they use to achieve success.
  3. Form a committee of your community’s brightest and best teachers, public officials and business and education leaders. Meet regularly to discuss ways in which you can improve academic achievement in your school or district while reducing costs. Review your state-mandated district and campus improvement plans to make sure they address these goals.
  4. Work with your regional education service center (ESC) and the Comptroller’s office to identify ways your school or district can maximize efficiencies, such as by buying in bulk. Texas’ 20 regional ESCs play an integral role in providing essential services to school districts. A list of the state’s regional ESCs and their contact information is available online.
  5. The Texas Education Agency (TEA), Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) and Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) all have annual conferences and meetings. Contact these organizations to attend workshops on ways to improve efficiency and save money in your school or district. Visit the Texas Education Agency, Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Association of School Boards for more information.
  6. TEA provides leadership, guidance and resources to help schools meet the educational needs of all students. The Comptroller’s office oversees state purchasing, awarding and managing hundreds of contracts on behalf of more than 200 state agencies as well as local governments. Both TEA and the Comptroller’s office stand ready to help your school or district identify ways to improve academic achievement and streamline purchasing. Visit the Texas Education Agency or State Purchasing for more information.

To learn more about public education in Texas, visit the Texas Education Agency website.

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Smart Practices

A Smart Practice must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • has proven to be an effective practice for containing, reducing or avoiding costs;
  • improves the efficiency and effectiveness of educational program delivery, including demonstrated improvement in student performance;
  • is estimated to produce a significant long-term return on investment for the district;
  • can be implemented by other districts.

We welcome such input from Texas school districts and individual campuses and encourage them to contact us.

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Apples2Apples

Parents can use the TXSmartSchools site to learn more about:

  • how your child’s Texas school district or campus is faring academically;
  • how dollars are being spent compared to relevant Fiscal Peers;
  • how your district or campus compares to other districts or campuses

The unique methodology employed for the TXSmartSchools report is designed to provide a fair and level playing field for districts and campuses to compare academic progress and relative spending with an eye on self-improvement.

You can run detailed TXSmartSchools reports to compare your district or campus with others in the state that share the same challenges and opportunities. You can compare relative spending and academic progress to emulate successful practices.

You also can read and contribute to TXSmartSchools’s Smart Practices,, which offer a growing list of proven cost-saving strategies by schools across the state.

As a large and diverse state, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for comparing all school districts and campuses. TXSmartSchools strives to offer a level playing field for closely studying relative academic progress and spending levels to point the way toward opportunities for efficiencies.

You can use TXSmartSchools to gain an overall view of public education spending, how specific districts and campuses are balancing strong academic progress while spending less than their Fiscal Peers, and Smart Practices that schools across the state can consider for saving money.

Visit the Help section of the website for guides and tutorials on using Apples2Apples.

Visit the Glossary section of the website for details on the terms and data items used by TXSmartSchools.

The TXSmartSchools data will be updated on an annual basis as new information is available from the Texas Education Agency and the analysis has been conducted for the TXSmartSchool value-added measures.

All of the data available to view in Apples2Apples can also be downloaded on the Data Downloads page.

The best contact for questions about specific district or campus academic details or spending/financial details is the district or campus itself. If you have questions about the methodology used by TXSmartSchools for the Smart Score, academic progress measures, or the spending index, you can contact us.

Feedback on the TXSmartSchools methodology and Apples2Apples comparison tool is welcome and encouraged. Visit the Contact page to share your thoughts and comments.

Methodology

The TXSmartSchools project involved extensive collaboration between the creators of the Comptroller's FAST system and recognized experts in the field both in Texas and across the United States.

Under the direction of Texans for Positive Economic Policy the same educational experts from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Dallas who assisted with the Comptroller's FAST system compiled the most recent data using the FAST methods with some added refinements.

The Smart Score combines measures of both academic progress and spending to identify school districts responsible for strong academic progress and cost-effective operations. Districts are assigned a rating from one to five stars indicating their success in combining prudent spending with academic success.

The math and reading progress scores used by TXSmartSchools are drawn from three years of results on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests and high school End of Course (EOC) exams. Our academic composite progress rating combines these math and reading scores into a single measure of student success that gauges student gains over time, controlling for various student characteristics that affect academic performance.

The TXSmartSchools spending index measures relative school district spending. It compares financial data for each district to that of other districts that can be considered “Fiscal Peers,” in that they are of similar size, serve similar students and face similar wage requirements.

Texas school districts operate in a wide variety of “cost environments” – the socioeconomic and geographic characteristics that influence the cost of education and are often beyond the school district’s control.

The TXSmartSchools team evaluated financial data for each district by comparing them to other districts or campuses that can be considered “Fiscal Peers,” in that they:

  • operate in similar cost environments;
  • are of similar size;
  • serve similar students.

To identify Fiscal Peers, the TXSmartSchools team employed a technique called propensity-score matching to identify up to 40 peers for each Texas school district and campus, based on common cost factors such as teacher and other employee wages, enrollment size, and student demographics.

Based on these comparisons, each district received a financial rating, a “spending index” ranging from very low to very high, with very low indicating the lowest relative spending in the fiscal peer group and very high representing the highest.

Economically disadvantaged kids are largely identified based on whether or not they sign up for free and reduced-price lunches. There is reason to believe that low income students are underidentified at the high school level because peer pressure (or a preference for fast food) leads high school students not to sign up for the subsidized lunches. If true, then high school students who are identified as economically disadvantaged would be more disadvantaged than elementary school students similarly identified. We address this issue by allowing the relationship between student performance and eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch to differ by the grade level of the school.

In FAST, Fiscal Peers were based on district size, labor costs and a few key student characteristics (percent special education, percent high needs special education, percent language limited, and percent economic need). In recent years, student mobility also has presented a big challenge to success. Even if these short-term students are not enrolled long enough to be reflected on a school’s achievement progress, they can still be huge consumers of classroom and teacher resources. TXSmartSchools reflects those costs by adding a student mobility measure to the set of characteristics that Fiscal Peers have in common.

Language acquisition gets more difficult as students age, so there is a difference in progress between high school and elementary school kids.

As with the most recent version of FAST, we adjust the spending numbers for shared service agreements. Shared service agreements (e.g. teacher sharing between schools, etc.) can be an effective way to conserve educational expenses, but care must be taken not to attribute a shared expense to a single entity. This nuance is a result of feedback from the districts asserting it would create a more accurate portrayal of reality.

TXSmartSchools does not include facilities costs, debt, transportation, and food in its calculations. It focuses on the resources going to the academic functions of a school district. This approach is fairer to schools districts that – because of circumstances like geographic sparseness or fast growth—have higher expenses but for nonacademic reasons.

Fully aware of the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” we strive for greater accuracy by working with actual audited expenditure data provided by the schools as required by the Texas Education Agency, rather than using figures for budgeted dollars.

For more information on the TXSmartSchools methodology, go to the Methodology page.

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