Some Austin-area schools get failing scores under new grading system


Five Austin district schools received failing scores.

Traditionally high-performing Leander school district had one school that failed.

Teacher groups criticized the A-F rating system Wednesday, saying it didn’t reflect student performance.

Multiple campuses in a handful of Austin-area school districts failed to meet Texas academic standards under the state’s new letter grade accountability system.

Under the new statewide system, districts on Wednesday received A-through-F letter grades and campuses were labeled “met requirement” or “improvement required.” Statewide, 121 school districts earned an A, 334 got a B, 232 got a C, 46 got a D, and nine got an F. Of the more than 8,700 campuses statewide, 95.7 percent met state standards under the new system. While schools won’t get letter grades until next year, they did get numeric grades on a 0-to-100 scale.

The Austin district earned a B, with an overall score of 89, but had five failing schools, one more than last year. Widen Elementary, Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Mendez Middle School and two alternative campuses, the Graduation Prep Academy housed at Travis High School and the Rosedale School, which educates students with severe special needs, all failed to meet state standards. District officials will appeal the rating for the Rosedale School, saying they believe the campus should not receive a rating because of the students it serves. The state in previous years has either not rated the campus or the district won its appeal for a low ranking.

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Austin district Superintendent Paul Cruz on Wednesday said that the new state rating system relies heavily on students’ performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, adding that he believed Austin students should be evaluated on more than just the state standardized test.

“We know that our kids and what we do in Austin ISD is more than one test result,” Cruz said. “We are about fine arts. We are about students demonstrating their genius around career opportunities, college opportunities, and there’s much more than student learning than any one indicator of performance.”

Echoing concerns that have arisen since the Republican-led Legislature established the A-F system in 2015, multiple education associations on Wednesday said the ratings were too simplistic, aimed at making public schools look bad.

“It was designed by the governor and the legislative majority to pass the blame for their own failures to children and educators,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “This governor and this legislative majority have repeatedly refused to adequately fund public schools. Texas now spends $2,300 less per student per year than the national average, and money makes a difference in education.”

School performance mixed

Mendez failed for the fifth consecutive year, but the campus was saved from closure and received a two-year reprieve from penalties under a new law that allowed the school to be run by a charter operator. It was the only multiyear failed campus in the district.

Govalle Elementary and Burnet and Martin middle schools, which failed standards last year, improved under the new rating system. In addition, of the approximately 130 Austin schools, nearly two dozen campuses earned a numeric score equivalent to an A and more than 50 earned a numeric score equivalent to a B, giving the Austin district a “recognized” rating.

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Schools in the Bastrop, Del Valle, Georgetown, Hays and Manor school districts also received failing grades. And for the first time, the Leander school district, considered one of the higher performing in the area, also saw one campus fail — Camacho Elementary. While other campuses in the district ranked highly, giving Leander an overall grade of 95, because the new accountability system does not allow any district with a failing school to earn an A, the district’s score dropped to an 89.

“We believe accountability is essential to ensuring our community high-quality schools,” Leander Superintendent Dan Troxell said, adding the district will boost coaching for teachers at Camacho, and add curriculum specialists and certified teachers for before- and after-school tutorials. “However, the simplification of a complex rating system to a single letter grade does not represent the charge of public education.”

Dissatisfaction with A-F

Central Texas school leaders said that while the letter grade can seem understandable, how it is calculated has multiple components and is complicated.

“It is so complex that we will really struggle to explain to our stakeholders what the grade means. It’s not any easier to explain how you got an A than how you got an F,” said Debra Ready, Austin’s executive director of accountability. “The complexity of it is going to be a huge challenge for everyone.”

But Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the new system is the fairest the state has offered, calling it a significant improvement over the prior one. Morath pointed to 260 schools statewide that failed accountability standards last year and are no longer rated “improvement required” under the new system.

Education policy group Texas Aspires agreed, saying the system gives the public more, and clearer, information than previous ones.

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“People have some basic understanding what each of those letter grades mean and can get a pretty quick idea of where their school’s at,” said Molly Weiner, Texas Aspires’ director of policy. “But we also encourage people to dig a little deeper and see exactly where their school is performing well and what areas need improvement.”

During a news conference Wednesday at Round Rock’s Walsh Middle School, Morath said the notion that A-F ratings are based solely on STAAR scores is false. He added that the new ratings system should support continuous improvement.

“It is a very fair system that provides a focus and incentive and reward for high levels of student achievement, while also rewarding high level of educator impact,” Morath said.

Morath has said the system is fairer because the A-F system compares districts and schools with similar student poverty rates to avoid unduly penalizing high-poverty campuses with lower grades. In coming years, the schools could be evaluated based on a locally-developed rating system which could boost the overall score they receive from the state. Austin is among the districts piloting that system.

Charter school systems, publicly funded but privately managed schools, also were rated under the new system — 32 received an A, 22 got a B, 15 got a C, 11 got a D and 7 got an F.

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