Fort Worth

Preliminary report on A-F system confirms educators’ worst fears

The Texas Education Agency released “a what if” report that gives campuses grades A through F. The new system is being developed for the 2018 school year. Results of the STAAR test are included in the new rating system.
The Texas Education Agency released “a what if” report that gives campuses grades A through F. The new system is being developed for the 2018 school year. Results of the STAAR test are included in the new rating system. Special to the S-T

A provisional report on the state’s new A-F school accountability system confirms the concerns of educators who contend that the ratings unfairly punish schools and students.

The Texas Education Agency released the 400-plus page “what if” report on Friday, grading schools and school districts in four domains — student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness.

Many of Texas’ 8,600 schools received mixed grades. Some campuses received all A’s, while others got all F’s.

The executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, James B. Crow, called the system “a flawed concept.”

“The preliminary ratings released to the public fail to provide meaningful information about schools. These new A-F ratings are just a symptom of the larger sickness: an unhealthy fixation on standardized testing and standardized expectations,” Crow said.

The report is designed to offer a glimpse of how an A-F accountability model would look, but it relies on past data — namely the STAAR tests taken in the 2015-16 school year.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath explained that the report was created for informational purposes to meet a legislative requirement of House Bill 2804, which lawmakers passed during the last legislative session. Discussions about the school rating system are expected to pick back up when the 85th Legislature convenes Tuesday.

Morath emphasized that the “what if” report represents “work-in-progress models that are likely to change before A-F ratings become effective in August 2018. No inferences about official district or campus performance in the 2015-16 school year should be drawn from these ratings, and these ratings should not be considered predictors of future district or campus performance ratings.”

The state’s current accountability system gives campuses and districts one of two ratings: “met standard” or “improvement required.”

‘It doesn’t do it justice’

The 400-page-plus report looks like a giant report card with 8,600 schools and 1,220 school districts/charters receiving grades in each of the four domains.

Some schools that received low marks had also received an improvement required rating under the current system. For example, Wimbish Elementary in the Arlington district received an improvement required rating in November. Wimbish received an F in student achievement, D in student progress, F in closing performance gaps and F in postsecondary readiness.

Marcelo Cavazos, superintendent for Arlington schools, emphasized this week that this test doesn’t offer a complete picture of student learning. He said there are many nuances that can’t be boiled down to a grade, including schools that serve students from low-income families and campuses with high mobility rates.

Wimbish Elementary is 90.3 percent economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“It doesn’t do it justice,” Cavazos said.

The grades for high schools were all over the map.

Aledo: A, B, C and D.

Fort Worth Paschal: Two C’s and two D’s.

Colleyville Heritage: A and three C’s.

Arlington Martin: B, two C’s and D.

Crowley: Four D’s.

Fort Worth Eastern Hills: Two D’s and two F’s.

Keller Central: Two B’s, C and D.

Mansfield Legacy: B, C and two D’s.

Euless Trinity: Two B’s, C and D.

In a letter written to the community, Hurst-Euless-Bedford Superintendent Steven Chapman said it’s important to remember that the A-F grades released Friday are not official.

“All HEB ISD campuses and the district received the highest ratings in the current accountability system and we are proud of our students and teachers for their performance in those areas,” Chapman wrote.

In the Fort Worth school district, low grades were the norm at several campuses.

But at Tanglewood Elementary near TCU, the grades were all A’s.

Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner has said the report “is not reflective of the current situation” but acknowledged that he will use his experience with an A-F accountability system in Phoenix to help turn schools around in Fort Worth.

He said the district will “use these baseline data as a launching pad.”

‘Incredibly fair’

The report does not include overall grades for individual schools and school districts.

“It is important to note that the met standard/improvement required ratings issued in August 2016 and updated in November 2016 are the official academic accountability ratings for the 2015-16 school year. A similar process will be used for the 2016-17 school year,” Morath said in a news release.

The A-F system has met much resistance across the state — more than 140 school boards have passed resolutions opposing it — and school leaders and education advocates continue to voice their concerns. North Texas superintendents will address the issues at a news conference Monday in Garland.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed HB2804, which calls for the education commissioner to adopt rules to evaluate schools and districts and assign each with a performance rating of letter grades — A, B, C, D or F. Per state law, the provisional report on the system was released to lawmakers on Jan. 1 and posted on the TEA website early Friday.

When the system is finalized, schools will receive A-F ratings in five performance areas, including “community and student engagement,” which was not included in the report released Friday. Schools and districts will receive their first official A-F grades in August 2018.

Texas Aspires, an Austin organization that supports the new system, emphasized that the report is a “work in progress.”

“This system is incredibly fair and accurate,” Texas Aspires Executive Director Courtney Boswell said in a news release. “It gives everyone involved appropriate goals and measures their performance as well as their progress. Critics have made a number of misleading, and some outright wrong, statements regarding the nature of our A-F system.”

‘Such a flawed system’

At the Red Oak school district in Ellis County, educators worry that C’s could give parents and students the wrong impression. Red Oak High School, for example, received all C’s.

“Our concern is that the A-F rating system, in contrast to the legislation’s intent, actually gives far less information to parents and community than the system that it was designed to replace,” said Helen Williams, the district’s communication director. “All they will see is a letter grade. What exactly does a C mean? The public will likely see a C as representing average or even mediocre performance. But we have been told that schools that are meeting the expectation and doing everything they should will receive a C.”

Other Texas educators have argued that because the report is based on flawed results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, the report is not an accurate reflection of learning in schools.

“We believe that state accountability is very important,” Denton Superintendent Jamie Wilson said. “We don’t believe that assigning a letter grade is the way to get there.”

Texas superintendents also worry that this report creates confusion for parents.

Aledo Superintendent Derek Citty said the report released Friday is merely “a first look.”

“There is so much that goes on and such a complex deal,” Citty said. “I just don’t think it is fair.”

Others have used social media, blogs and newspaper columns to criticize the system, including Granbury Superintendent James Largent. He wrote an essay titled A-F Accountability — Really?

“It is such a flawed system,” Largent said. “ If all of our campuses got a grade of A, we would feel the same.”

Jodi Duron, superintendent of Elgin schools in Bastrop County, wrote in the Elgin Courier that students and schools should not be defined by the report.

“Letter grades based largely on standardized test scores hold schools and districts accountable for many factors they do not control, such as social and economic barriers,” Duron wrote. “As research has shown time and time again, poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement. That doesn’t mean students of poverty are not able to learn; rather, they have greater challenges and obstacles to overcome in order to learn. … Yes, poverty matters.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1