No one at the Richardson Independent School District is ready to panic because the state rated the district as “unacceptable” in its August assessment of education in Texas.

And, officials say, parents shouldn’t panic, either.

“The problem is, parents see their school’s (or district’s) name on list and they think those schools are not performing,” says RISD spokeswoman Susan Wilson. “But that’s not true. More than likely, it’s one small group within the school that is having a significant problem.”

Says Connie Baird, the president of the PTA at Merriman Park Elementary: “We know we have an outstanding school, no matter what the test results say, and we’re going to keep doing what we can to make the school as good as we can.”

In addition to the district’s rating, based on what the state called an unacceptable high school dropout rate, six RISD schools were rated unacceptable. One of them – Aikin Elementary – was in Lake Highlands.

“My hypothesis is that poverty is causing most of these problems,” says Blyth Riegel, the director of research and testing for the RISD, who has analyzed the results from the state tests. “Poverty leads to a high mobility rate, which is not a consistent educational experience.”

Larry Toon, who represents Lake Highlands on the RISD board of trustees, did not return phone calls requesting he discuss the results. It’s the second month in a row this happened.

Wilson says that the actual numbers of low-performing children made up a relatively small portion of the 30,000-pupil district.

Administrators say that the ratings, compiled by the Texas Education Agency, were based on test scores from some grades, and not the entire school. That meant that if one or two grades did poorly, the entire school was labeled as poor, regardless of what was happening elsewhere.

“In some schools, nine or 11 children caused the school to be named,” she says, adding that most of those children fell into one or more of three categories: they came from poor families, they were new to the district, or they moved often.

“Some of those children haven’t been with us for very long,” she says. “And some have already gone.”

Nevertheless, the RISD, Wilson says, wants to improve its rating. That’s why it is “looking for different ways of working with schools that have had problems,” she says.

“Even if a small number of students are having a problem, we want those children to succeed.”

For instance, administrators at elementary schools such as Aikin in north Lake Highlands, which draw students who live in apartment buildings, are asking the complex managers not to offer free rent as incentive to lure tenants. The free rent, Riegel says, increases the mobility rate.

“We’re trying to help the principals understand some of the underlying factors contributing to the problem,” she says. “Some things are beyond your control.”

Joey Lozano of the Austin-based TEA, which compiled the ratings, says that was the point of the entire exercise.

“What we’re trying to do is to identify those areas where performance is low and needs to be increased dramatically,” he says. He describes the ratings, which categorized every school and every school district in Texas, as a bipartisan effort between the TEA and individual schools to make real improvements, and not an “expose” on the poor status of schools.

The TEA report rated schools as part of the state legislature’s plan to improve public education in Texas. The Dallas Independent School District, for instance, was rated acceptable, although 29 of its schools were rated unacceptable.

The report divided schools and districts into five categories: exemplary, recognized, acceptable, unacceptable, and low-performing. All but one of the 14 Lake Highlands area schools, including Lake Highlands High School, two junior high schools and 11 elementary schools, earned acceptable ratings. No RISD school was rated exemplary.

The TEA cited the RISD as unacceptable because of its student dropout rate, which was higher than six percent. The district could also receive a letter of concern if any minorities or economically disadvantaged portion of the student body doesn’t meet the dropout cutoff.

School districts and schools rated as unacceptable must hold public hearings and submit a plan to improve their rating, Lozano says.

The TEA will work with schools, he says, to help them improve their rating.

If the RISD doesn’t improve its rating in two years, Lozano says, it could lose its accreditation. However, few people involved in the process say they expect this to happen.