UPDATE, 4:48 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional reporting
Dallas ISD continued to show progress in a new round of state A-F district ratings released Thursday.
The district scored a B rating for the 2018-19 school year, the same grade it received the year before, but twice as many schools in the district received failing marks in this year's ratings as did in a similar report released last year.
This year's rankings mark the second A-F report released by the Texas Education Agency. The agency rolled out the first iteration of the report last year, giving letter grades to school districts but numerical grades to individual schools.
Supporters of the ranking system say it gives families an easy way to tell how their children's schools stack up against others statewide. But critics of the system have said it's an overly simplistic look at what goes on in school districts and unfairly penalizes districts with large percentages of students who come from low-income families, those who are English language learners and those facing other challenges.
During a press conference Thursday at Toyota Music Factory in Irving, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the ratings were designed to account for a wide range of educational outcomes like graduation rates and college, career and military readiness.
"This has been designed to recognize all that happens in a school district," Morath said. "It is not just about performance on standardized tests."
One of the rating system's most important functions is accounting for how districts are handling economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and those in other categories that face special challenges. Texas has a responsibility to make sure those children get a quality education, Morath said.
"The American dream is for everyone," he said. "We want you to learn and achieve at high levels. And we don't mean unless you are a foster child. We don't mean unless you are homeless. We don't mean unless you are in special needs."
Although it maintained its B rating, Dallas ISD improved by five points over last year, climbing from an 81 for the 2017-18 school year to an 86 for the 2018-19 school year.
Of the 232 Dallas ISD schools listed in the report, 28 received an A rating and 102 earned a B. Eight Dallas ISD schools received an F rating in this year's report: Cedar Crest Elementary, Frederick Douglass Elementary, John Leslie Patton Jr. Academic Center, Kennedy-Curry Middle School, Nancy J. Cochran Elementary, Roger Q. Mills Elementary, Rufus C. Burleson Elementary and Wilmer-Hutchins Elementary. That's up from four schools that received an "improvement required" rating last year, the equivalent of an F on last year's rating scale.
Of the four schools that received an "improvement required" rating in last year's report, only one — Patton Academic Center — earned an F in this year's ratings.
That eight schools received an F in this year's report is a cause for concern, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. District officials have already identified problems at those campuses and other schools around the district and are working on fixing them, he said.
Of the eight campuses that received F ratings, five had new principals last year, Hinojosa said. When the district received preliminary data months ago that pointed to problems at those schools, school officials stepped up the district's leadership training program. As a result, principals are going into the upcoming school year better prepared than they were last year, he said.
Hinojosa said the district had early warning signs that there may have been problems at some schools across the district. In a faculty climate survey that district officials conducted last year, teachers at some schools reported having communication problems with their principals. Hinojosa admits the district wasn't quick enough to intervene.
Overall district ratings are based on districts' performance in three categories: student achievement, which is based on STAAR test outcomes and a number of other factors; school progress, which tracks how students improve over time; and a third category called "closing the gaps," which tracks growth among certain subsets of the student population, including English language learners and those from low-income families.
In most performance categories, Dallas ISD appears to be moving in the right direction. The district's student achievement and student progress scores improved over last year's report, although they still lagged behind the state average. The district's college, career and military readiness rate also improved, climbing from 45% in last year's report to 57% in this year's ratings.
The district's four-year graduation rate slipped by 1 percentage point, falling from 88.3% last year to 87.3% this year. The statewide graduation rate climbed slightly during the same period.
This year's report marks the first time individual schools have been assigned letter grades. In last year's report, districts were assigned letter grades, while individual schools were given a numerical grade based on a 100-point scale. Those numerical grades could easily be translated into a corresponding letter grade.
Expanding the letter grade system to the campus level makes it more difficult to attract good teachers to those schools, Hinojosa said. Across the state, the districts that scored high marks in the report tended to be those that had larger numbers of high-achieving teachers, he said. An F grade for an entire district can be self-reinforcing, because it can make it more difficult for those districts to recruit good teachers who could help turn the district around. Now that campuses receive an official letter grade, he worries low marks could make it harder to attract those same good teachers to schools that need help.
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"Now it's no longer 'improvement required,'" he said. "Now they have the scarlet letter."
A vocal critic of A-F rankings, Hinojosa said the way the rating system is structured gives districts like Dallas ISD an inherent disadvantage. A majority of the district's students face challenges that make it more difficult for them to do well in school. About 86% of the district's students are economically disadvantaged, and 44.7% are English language learners. Using the same set of criteria to grade Dallas schools as those in more affluent districts like Coppell and Highland Park doesn't make sense, he said.
Still, Hinojosa said, as long as the A-F rating data is available, district officials will dig into it and make the best use of it they can.
"It's not going away," he said. "So we've got to deal with it."