Other Voices

Is the new A-F grading system a better way to rate schools? Here’s the debate

This week Texas begins using a A-F school rating system. The education commissioner says it is understandable. Critics say it relies too much on STAAR test results.
This week Texas begins using a A-F school rating system. The education commissioner says it is understandable. Critics say it relies too much on STAAR test results. Star-Telegram archives

Pro A-F system: it makes school ratings understandable

On Aug. 15, the Texas Education Agency will issue report cards for our schools. We do this for two main reasons. First, parents should know how well our schools are performing so they can better support their children. Second, educators benefit from having clear information about school performance, highlighting successes and challenges, to help improve support for students over time.

This year, the report card system for our schools is changing. For the first time, school districts will receive a rating on an A-through-F scale. These ratings will be applied to schools themselves starting next year.

To help parents, educators and community members understand the A-F system, we have established a new website — TXschools.org — to share school report cards.

These online report cards are designed to be useful tools for parents, educators and community members to see how a school or school district is doing in different areas. The report spotlights specific strengths, in addition to any challenges, that can assure the needs of all students are being met. Parents can search by district or school name and compare that district’s or school’s performance to others in their area.

As Commissioner of Education, I view parents and the community as important partners in a school’s success. That’s why we spent time listening to parents, educators and members of the community to make sure the new report cards were easy-to-use tools that provided meaningful information.

In addition, principals and district leaders can use this information to better support students and schools. Moving forward, year-to-year comparisons using A-F will make it easier to determine if a district or campus is getting better, performing about the same, or still has some work to do to improve.

School and district ratings are based on multiple measures, which include more than just test scores. The overall rating is calculated using the school’s score in three areas: Student Achievement; School Progress; and Closing the Gaps. To help explain the system in basic terms, TXschools.org includes easy to read descriptions and tools describing just how the system works.

Starting Aug. 15, I encourage all parents to spend a few moments to explore the abundant information that will be available about your child’s school and school district. And just as parents use a variety of information to assess their own child’s education, these school report cards – in conjunction with information available at the local level – should help inform how schools are working to meet the needs of every student in the community.

Mike Morath serves as Texas Commissioner of Education. To learn more about the A-F accountability system, visit https://tea.texas.gov/A-F/.

Against A-F system: it relies on high-stakes testing

Regardless of the results of the Texas Education Agency’s first issuance of letter-grade ratings to Texas public school districts, the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) will continue to advocate for the establishment of a more comprehensive, community-based public school accountability system that looks beyond high-stakes, multiple-choice exams.

TASA and many school leaders across the state believe there is a better way to define school success and accountability.

“We believe in a strong accountability system, but we ask this question: To whom should we be accountable and for what?’” said TASA Executive Director Kevin Brown. “School districts should be accountable to their local communities first, and the measures of accountability should represent the complex work that schools do to prepare children for the 21st century, including teaching innovation, leadership, critical thinking and real-world problem solving.”

“Parents want their children to do rigorous, engaging work that sparks a lifelong love of learning, not prep for a multiple-choice test that colleges and businesses don’t even consider. To think that one letter grade somehow accurately reflects the complex work of hundreds of teachers and thousands of students on one campus, let alone an entire district, is really an insult to their hard work. We expect more for our children and our schools.”

TASA also opposes A-F district and campus rating systems, says TASA Legislative Chair Doug Williams, superintendent of Sunnyvale ISD.

“While letter grades seem simple, no one can explain why a district receives an A or an F. Numerous pages of complicated calculations are used to reduce district performance measures — mainly standardized test scores — into a single letter grade. There is also no guidance on how to raise a low grade, making it a punitive system. So, A-F systems are neither transparent nor useful for improvement,” Williams said.

TASA is not alone in its opposition to A-F school ratings. In 2016-17, nearly 600 school district boards of trustees representing 2.87 million students, as well as a number of chambers of commerce and statewide organizations, adopted resolutions opposing the A-F school rating system.

In addition, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the State Board of Education, an overwhelming majority of Texans say they do not want a public school accountability system based primarily on students’ standardized test scores. The survey also showed that most Texans also agree that public school accountability should provide a way to identify areas of support needed for underperforming schools as well as identify areas of effective best practices used by high-performing campuses and districts.

“We believe that Texas students would be better served by a comprehensive, community-based accountability system,” said Brown. “Such systems look beyond high-stakes, multiple-choice tests to meaningful assessments that have value for students, parents, and teachers, as well as measures what each community deems important in promoting college and career readiness.”

TASA is helping to further community-based accountability in Texas by facilitating the Texas Public Accountability Consortium (TPAC), a group of 51 Texas school districts working to build on the success of community-based accountability systems already in use in districts around the state by developing next-generation measures and assessments that would enable wider use of such systems.

“TPAC is working to demonstrate that a well-crafted community-based accountability system can better communicate the quality of effort by a school and district than the state’s standardized, test-centric accountability system, which fails to provide a full picture of what is actually taking place in a school,” Brown said.

Casey McCreary is the Associate Executive Director of education policy for , TASA, The Texas Association of School Administrators.