Statesman analysis: Texas A-F school grades give boost to charters

Jan 13, 2017
Aydin Rosales, 10, works out a math problem at the IDEA Allan charter school. IDEA’s campuses in Austin did fairly well under the state’s new advisory A-F grades issued this month, achieving two As and no failing grades. Executive Director Larkin Tackett said that while the new accountability system might be imperfect, it meets the bar for how all decisions should be made, which is by determining what is best for students and their families.

Critics of the new A-F grading system for Texas schools have long warned that the state’s letter grades would give an undeserved boost to charter schools.

An American-Statesman analysis of the advisory A-F grades issued this month shows that charter schools did fare better compared with their traditional public school peers under the letter grade system than they did under the state’s old ratings.

The advisory grades show how schools and districts would have performed for the 2015-16 school year if the A-F rating system already had been in place. Under the existing accountability system, charter schools that year were slightly more likely to have at least one failing mark than traditional public schools.

But traditional schools — not charters — were more likely to fail under the new letter grades, even though data from the same year were used to calculate them, the Statesman analysis shows.

Just as defenders of traditional public schools had feared, the results of the advisory grades have emboldened those who support school choice — a blanket term for efforts to use public dollars to pay for alternatives to traditional public schools.

“Public education is at a crossroads. There are active people trying to truly dismantle the public education system in order to encourage privatization of our public schools, therefore incorporate charters or vouchers. Do I think it’s part of a larger dynamic of harming our public schools? Definitely,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-Socorro, who has proposed legislation to repeal the A-F system.

The letter grades released this month are a snapshot to give schools and the public a taste of how the new A-F system will work when it’s finalized next year. The letter grades aren’t punitive or official, and the accountability ratings released in August still stand.

While many charter schools aren’t opposing the A-F system, traditional public schools for months have complained that the plan should be repealed, arguing that the letter grades provide little meaningful information to guide student learning and are meant to make traditional public schools look bad.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has named passing school choice legislation one of his top priorities during the legislative session, said Wednesday that the A-F system is here to stay and this month’s grades show why school choice is so important.

“We will not repeal A to F. We finally have an accountability system, and, boy, are they running for the hills,” Patrick said during an event hosted by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank.

The A-F system, passed by the Legislature in 2015, is based largely — 55 percent — on state standardized test performance. The Texas Education Agency is expected to make some tweaks to the system before it’s put into official use, but as it stands now, schools and districts are graded in four areas:

• How students perform on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

• How students improve on the STAAR year over year.

• How well students are prepared for careers and college after high school

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

At least 16 other states have adopted similar letter grade rating systems, but there’s been considerable pushback from Texas school districts. At least 150 school districts, including Austin, Bastrop and Dripping Springs, have passed resolutions calling on lawmakers to trash the letter grade rating system.

It’s not clear why charter schools did better under the A-F system than the current system, but traditional public school advocates said that charter schools tend to “cherry pick” the students they admit and focus their coursework on doing well on standardized tests.

David Dunn, head of the Texas Charter Schools Association, says that’s not the case, pointing out that many charter schools also performed poorly in the A-F advisory ratings.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that there are fewer campuses compared to traditional ISDs at the D or F level,” Dunn said. “But stepping back, bigger picture, none of us can be terribly pleased with the results. This rating system shows that the education system in Texas — writ large, whether you’re in a charter or in a traditional school district, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and we’ve all got a lot of work to do.”

IDEA charter school campuses in Austin did fairly well, achieving two A’s and no failing grades. Executive Director Larkin Tackett said that while the new system might be imperfect, it meets the bar for how all decisions should be made, which is by determining what is best for students and their families. The state’s results track with IDEA’s internal benchmarking, he said.

“This is telling us we can do better and we need to develop better strategies, not that the system is rigged or is so bad that we’re going to ignore it,” Tackett said.

The charter KIPP Austin Public Schools for years had strong marks under the state’s systems, but didn’t fare as well under A-F, receiving eight unacceptable grades at its nine schools. But Executive Director Steven Epstein said overall, KIPP welcomes such measures that help provide accountability and transparency to the public.

“Communities and families deserve to have as much information as possible to make the best possible choices for their students’ education,” Epstein said. “We use state accountability as well as other indicators to inform our work and accomplish our mission of getting students to and through college.”