School districts across the state got lackluster grades under the state’s newest accountability system that debuts Friday.
Various Central Texas districts received unacceptable marks of D’s and F’s in certain categories, including Austin, Leander, Hays, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Elgin, San Marcos, Hutto and Dripping Springs, according to a report sent to the Legislature last week that was obtained Thursday by the American-Statesman.
Even some nationally ranked campuses, including Round Rock’s Westwood High School and Westlake High in the Eanes district, didn’t muster straight A’s under the new system, and some schools that received top marks from the state just a few months ago got unacceptable scores in some categories.
This year’s grades are meant to give districts and the public a glimpse of how the new system will work when it is finalized next year, and aren’t yet official or punitive. The accountability ratings doled out in August still stand.
For months, school districts and their advocates have cautioned the state about implementing the A-F system, saying it provides little meaningful information to guide student learning and is meant to make traditional public schools look bad compared with charter and private schools.
“Although we support and value campus and district accountability, we also believe that communities cannot assess the complexity of educating students by a single letter grade based mostly on a standardized assessment,” Round Rock Superintendent Steve Flores said.
State lawmakers, who approved the system in 2015, haven’t backed down. Proponents say the new system grades schools in multiple areas in a way the public can easily understand.
The A-F ratings are based heavily — 55 percent — on student performance on state standardized tests. The grading system goes into effect in August 2018.
In the future, districts and campuses will also receive an overall letter grade, but that’s not the case for the preliminary marks this year. The Texas Education Agency is instead releasing four letter grades, each in a different category:
• How students performed on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.
• How students improved on the STAAR year over year.
• How well students are prepared for careers and college after high school. The state is scoring elementary school students on this category based on how many of their students are chronically absent. Middle schools will also be scored on their drop-out rates.
• How campuses and school districts close performance gaps between low-income and higher-income students.
Courtney Boswell, executive director of the Austin-based education policy group Texas Aspires, said the results transparently and comprehensively represent the performance of districts and campuses statewide.
Under the current system, school districts and campuses either meet or fail to meet state requirements based on performance measures, most of which are similar to those being implemented in the A-F system.
“So much of the resistance to accountability and academic transparency comes from superintendents and supported by suburban-type parents,” Boswell said. “Everyone thinks that their school and teachers are great, and not necessarily the one over there. It gives us a great opportunity to see where there are gaps and areas for improvement. Perceptions aren’t always reality.”
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said the A-F system is a “work in progress” and that there could still be some tweaks to it.
“The ratings in this report are for informational purposes to meet a legislative requirement and represent work-in-progress models that are likely to change before A–F ratings become effective in August 2018,” Morath said Friday in a news release. “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.”
According to the Texas Association of School Administrators, the school boards of 150 Texas districts, including Austin, Bastrop, Dripping Springs and Manor, have called on the Legislature to repeal the A-F letter grading system. Others, like the Round Rock district, included it among their legislative priorities.
Austin school Superintendent Paul Cruz said having an A-F system is confusing if it isn’t the same A through F system that people know and understand. Under this system, a school can have a 90 and still be failing, he said, and “that’s not the grading system we use in our schools.”
Blackshear Elementary, for example, is a national Blue Ribbon school, and has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for its work educating a high concentration of students from low-income families. Yet it received an F under the postsecondary readiness category because of absenteeism, Cruz said.
Casey McCreary, an assistant executive director with the school administrator association, said she has heard similar concerns from other Texas superintendents. Schools that have received awards for preparing low-income students for college got poor grades in postsecondary readiness. District officials have also complained that the system is punishing schools that have students who have accumulated days of excused absences because of medical disabilities and illnesses.
“Bottom line is that the majority of superintendents aren’t going to praise the A’s, and they’re not going to cry about the F’s,” McCreary said. “They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing because if the campus gets an F in these what-if ratings, it doesn’t tell them anything. It doesn’t tell them what needs to improve. It doesn’t supply any sort of resources to make improvements.”
Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association said, under the grading system, schools with many low-income students are unfairly pitted against their wealthier peers, who tend to perform better academically.
The system stigmatizes and discredits the performance of traditional public schools so that more students will go to charter and private schools, Robison said.
“The Legislature should be ashamed of itself for even imposing this system. Instead of trying to stigmatize low-income kids going to low-income, underfunded schools, the Legislature should do the right thing and adequately fund public schools, cut back on stressful testing and give the real education experts – the teachers – the time and the flexibility to do what they do best and that is to teach kids how to learn,” Robison said.