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Texas’ school ratings remain in limbo as the state and school districts fight over how strict the grading should be

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Texas’ school ratings remain in limbo as the state and school districts fight over how strict the grading should be” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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About six years ago, the Kingsville Independent School District was only one of nine public school districts across the state to receive a failing grade under the state’s newly introduced A-F accountability system.

Many educators either stepped down or were asked to leave because of the abysmal rating. But the effects extended beyond the district: The F rating caused Kleberg County, home to Kingsville ISD, to lose out on a partnership with the U.S. Navy that would’ve spurred growth in the region, Superintendent Cissy Reynolds-Perez said.

“There’s a ripple effect,” she said. “These letter grades are not just something you take lightly, and that’s why they’re so high stakes. Not only do we need to make the grade because we want our kids to grow and improve, but we know how it can affect the whole community.”

That’s why Reynolds-Perez was one of several Texas school leaders who objected when the state announced stricter requirements to get a good rating: Under the proposed new rules, schools would have to prove that a significantly higher number of high school students were pursuing a career after graduating.

Kingsville ISD sued the Texas Education Agency last year and stopped the update. A Travis County judge found that the state’s changes, which were to debut last fall, are unlawful and would harm districts across the state.

The TEA appealed the decision and the trial, which was supposed to be held next month, has been postponed. The release of the ratings, which help inform families and educators about their schools’ performance, won’t be released until the case is resolved.

“This ruling completely disregards the laws of this state and, for the foreseeable future, prevents any A-F performance information from being issued to help millions of parents and educators improve the lives of our students,” the agency said in a statement.

How to hold schools accountable for Texas students’ academic performance has been a contentious issue in recent years, with big implications for the state’s public education system and economy.

The state says it needs detailed data and higher benchmarks to measure schools’ performance to better prepare students for life after high school.

A recent report from the George W. Bush Institute and Texas 2036 found that 70% of jobs in Texas will require a post-secondary degree by 2036, but when cohorts of Texas eighth-graders were tracked, only 22% acquire such credentials within six years of high school graduation.

School leaders agree with the goal but say the changes the state wants would be too abrupt, potentially setting them up for failure and creating an inaccurate narrative about their work.

And for schools, the potential ramifications of a bad grade could be big. Getting an F could lead parents to leave the district, which would mean receiving less money from the state since school funding is based on student attendance. In a worst case scenario, school districts with too many failing grades in a row face the threat of a state takeover — just like it happened at the Houston Independent School District last summer.

Accountability in Texas

Since 1993, the Texas Legislature has mandated a system to evaluate public schools’ academic performance.

Mary Lynn Pruneda, senior policy advisor for Texas 2036, said accountability drives transparency that students, families and policymakers need to drive academic improvement.

“The harsh reality of this situation is that when Texas schools don’t have accountability ratings, the group that suffers the most are students,” Pruneda said. “After the pandemic, only about half of our students are on grade level, and we’re graduating more than 120,000 students each year who aren’t ready for either college or a career.”

Before the A-F system came into effect in 2017, the state only rated schools with one of three grades: “met standard,” “met alternative standard” or “improvement required.”

Now, districts and their campuses are assigned an A-to-F grade based on students’ performance on the state’s standardized test, academic growth and graduation rates, as well as schools’ efforts to prepare kids for careers after high school. Parents and community members use the scores to see how their schools and districts are performing.

The TEA says the 2017 law that required the creation of a new rating system also came with a mandate to keep adding rigor to how schools are graded.

The law states that the TEA commissioner shall “establish and modify standards to continuously improve student performance” to “ensure this state is a national leader in preparing students for postsecondary success.”

The law also stipulated that the agency would not make changes to how it evaluates schools’ academic performance for five years. That waiting period ended last year, and shortly after the agency announced it would revamp the A-F system. One change in particular irked school officials.

Under the current system’s college and career readiness portion, high schools earn an A if 60% of seniors either enrolled in college, pursued a non-college career or entered the military. The revamped rating system, announced in January, raises that benchmark and awards A grades to high schools only if 88% of seniors meet one of those criteria.

This change would’ve bogged down overall school ratings and many high school campuses would’ve received Ds or Fs, Reynolds-Perez said. Under the current system, Kingsville ISD’s only high school would’ve been close to getting an A for its performance in 2022; under the TEA’s proposed changes, the school would’ve nearly gotten an F, Reynolds-Perez said.

“It would have created a false narrative,” she said.

The Kingsville superintendent said a year was not enough time to allow schools to adjust to the change and that the increase should’ve been phased.

At a Texas House committee meeting in February, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told TEA Commissioner Mike Morath there could be other ways to improve postsecondary success without putting schools’ grades in jeopardy.

The law “certainly doesn’t say Morath must raise the bar for schools as they are recovering from a pandemic,” Hinojosa said.

Other criticisms

Schools have other criticisms of the accountability system, including that it still places an overly large emphasis on the state test.

“You’re measuring a child’s ability on one test,” Reynolds-Perez said.

School leaders also say the system tends to be punitive toward districts that serve low-income families. Under the current rules, a majority of campuses that would have received a D or F based on their 2022 performance serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities. That year, the TEA gave those schools a “Not Rated” label as schools were still reeling from the pandemic.

The TEA dismisses that poorer schools do worse because of the system itself.

When the 2022 ratings were released, Morath said there are challenges for high-poverty schools, but believes it is not impossible for them to rate higher.

“Poverty is definitely not destiny,” Morath said. “The idea that this is just some sort of rating of poverty is false. The question is how do we help spread what we identify as the most effective evidence-based practices in our schools.”

For Reynold-Perez, the best outcome of the lawsuit would be for the system’s career readiness requirements to be raised more gradually — or better yet, for the whole system to be revamped with a more holistic approach.

“We believe that we need to be held accountable,” she said. “We just believe that the accountability system needs reform, and it needs to be done lawfully and fairly.”

Resolution to the lawsuit — and the fight over how Texas schools are graded — likely won’t come until later in the spring or summer. In the meantime, families will have to continue waiting to see how their schools performed last year.

“This decision leaves local school system leaders, community members, and families without one of their only tools for understanding school performance and advocating for essential programs and resources specifically designed to lift up their most underserved students,” said Jonathan Feinstein, director of The Education Trust in Texas.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/16/texas-accountability-ratings-tea-school-districts-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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