Austin district calls on lawmakers to repeal A-F school rating system


The State Legislature last year passed a system that rates school districts with an A-F grade.

It rates schools based on indicators such as STAAR test scores and students’ preparedness after high school.

Austin trustees would prefer that districts design their own accountability and assessment systems.

School districts across the state are giving their own failing grades to the state’s new accountability rating system, which will make its debut later this month.

On Monday night, the Austin district board members approve a resolution that calls on the Texas Legislature to repeal the A-F letter grade rating system that is based largely on state standardized testing performance and goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year. Other districts, including Dripping Springs, also have passed such resolutions.

Austin trustees are asking lawmakers to instead create a community-based accountability system that would allow districts to design their own systems of accountability and assessment, which they say will allow them to customize curriculum to better meet the need of their students.

READ: Four Austin middle schools stumble in Texas education ratings

While at least 16 states have put into place similar letter grade rating systems, “there is no definitive research that suggests these ratings have improved student or school performance,” the resolution states.

The new rating system was passed by the Legislature in 2015 amid much pushback from school districts statewide. It requires that the Texas Education Agency assign letter grades on overall performance, as well as for each of five performance indicators, to districts and their campuses. Letter grades A through C are considered acceptable, while D and F are not. Districts are unable to receive an overall A, or an A for any performance indicator rating, if any school in the district has received a D or an F in a corresponding domain.

The five performance indicators will measure how well:

• Students perform on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

• Students improve on the STAAR year over year.

• Students are prepared for careers and college after high school.

• Campuses and school districts close performance gaps between low-income and higher-income students.

• Campuses and districts engage students and the community.

Preliminary ratings for four of the five indicators will be released in January, based on data from the 2015-16 school year (the community and student engagement, on which districts decide how to rate themselves, will not be a part of this first glimpse of the system). The scores are not official or punitive; the TEA will use the scores to develop the final grading system, which will be implemented in August 2018, and accountability ratings doled out earlier this year will stand.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Friday addressed concerns he’s heard from school districts, saying that, as it stands now, a little more than half — 55 percent — of the system takes into account STAAR performance and that all school districts have a chance to receive an A.

He said it makes sense to have multiple ways of looking at performance, with a label that is easy for people to understand.

“Boiling down a human being to a single metric is fraught with criticism,” he said. “I still think it’s a very important thing to do because we have to focus on systems that allow for performance improvement. … Creating a system that allows for continuous improvement is entirely appropriate and, in fact, quite good for our kids.”

But Austin and other education leaders warn that the system does not take into account schools with high percentages of low-income kids and other factors that are a challenge to achieving strong academic performance. They say it will stigmatize schools with the new labels without avenues of helping them.

The Austin resolution asserts that STAAR “provides little meaningful information to guide student learning.”

“A lot of districts are opposing this, and so are we,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “The A-F system will do nothing to improve educational opportunities for children. It is heavily weighted toward STAAR scores, which will increase pressure to teach to the test, which already angers many parents. A-F is an attempt by the legislative majority to conceal the fact that the majority refuses to adequately fund public schools.”

In a letter to families, Austin district Superintendent Paul Cruz made a similar point. A child’s achievement on STAAR “is just one measure of student performance,” he said. “We believe in educating the whole child. … We will continue to nurture engaging learning environments where all students can demonstrate achievement in many different ways.”

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