The Observer asked Dr. Stephen F. Waddell, an experienced educator and leader in school innovation, for his take on Texas' controversial new A-F grading system for public schools. See a longer bio and partial list of his bona fides at the end of his essay.
This month school districts across Texas waited with baited breath for the first A-F scores to be reported. The Legislature and state moved inexorably toward this system, the latest effort in the nearly four decades of high-stakes testing and accountability. Superintendents and their boards have been vocal in their opposition to the A-F system. This is not because they do not believe in improvement or accountability. They just believe it is an inaccurate and confusing system.
I don’t question the fact that many of the new system’s advocates for the new grading system, including Commissioner Mike Morath, are sincere in their desire to improve education and in their belief that this system will help. The fact is, though, that it is inherently a shaming system. This is a system in which every district except those earning an A is a relative loser. These lower scoring districts are finding themselves in an uncomfortable position of explaining the grade to their parents and community. The results will no doubt be used by Realtors in pushing towns and neighborhoods, a powerful incentive for both parents and businesses looking to relocate. The effects will extend far beyond that of student achievement and have a real impact on economic health. Rural towns with boarded shops, maturing suburbs and high-poverty communities will find that grappling with their challenges is even more difficult. Feeble arguments that improving schools through A-F will improve local economies by improving schools won’t work: The damage will already be done, and A-F will not improve schools.
Advocates for A-F tout it for being simpler to understand because people are familiar with A-F grades. The fact is, schools have not used A-F grades for students in years, and there may be a generation of parents who have never seen letter grades on report cards. And how do parents, the community and Realtors really know what that grade actually means? Those letter grades are based on a complicated methodology utilizing mostly STAAR and EOC test results. No one will understand how that is calculated; they will just react to the grade. Parents in districts making a low score will believe their school must be bad, while those with an A will think their school is good. Simply put, the A-F system is not simple, it is simplistic and it does a poor job in informing the community about the quality of the schools. No other enterprise uses such a simplistic way of reporting results.
So now the grades are out and what is the result? Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has been a critic of the system, but he couldn’t help reacting favorably when the district received a B. It’s hard to blame him. It is too tempting for superintendents whose districts receive a high grade to not use it, as Dr. Hinojosa said, “… to our advantage.” Meanwhile, other districts, good ones that serve their communities well, are left demoralized with their C's as they prepare to begin a long school year. Districts should probably not make too much of their grade, be it bad or good. And for districts like Dallas, it may only defer criticism for a while. Long term, will Dallas ISD ever make an A, like the affluent districts did this week? And if that is not likely, how good is the system?
There is strong reason to believe the system is not a good one. A couple of things stand out. First, the map, “Texas School Districts A-F,” gives us a general view of districts' performance. Clearly the results mirror, pretty much, the degree to which they were urban and poor. Fort Worth and most inner-tier districts were C's. The next tier of older suburbs and developed communities like Richardson, Lewisville and Denton — and Dallas, to its credit — were B's. The newer or wealthier communities were primarily the ones that made the A's. What does this tell us? If you were to change the name of that map from “Texas School Districts A-F” to “Population and Demographic Trends in Texas,” people would think it was a map of population, demographics and the flight of affluence to the suburbs, rather than student achievement.
Second is the range of grades themselves. The grades had a large percentage of A’s, B’s and C’s. With the exception of two small charter schools, D was the lowest grade. A problem with an A-F system is that some schools will have high grades and some schools low grades. You don’t establish a grading system like this and then find that all the schools are A’s or B’s. That undercuts the claim of advocates that this system will improve schools. There will always be schools scoring lower than others, and because of how these grades are determined, it is likely that districts and, next year, campuses, that are high-poverty or diverse will be those that score lower.
Essentially, there is a curve based on wealth. And this year, the methodology led to a stratification of A’s, B’s and C’s with D’s being the low grade.
Stratification is a significant factor but one that has not been discussed much in the debate about high-stakes testing and high-stakes accountability. Missing has been the question of why multiple choice, standardized tests were developed and how they work. James Popham is professor emeritus at UCLA and twice president of the American Education Research Association. He is an expert on testing and accountability. Several Dallas-area districts, including Highland Park, Coppell, Northwest and Lewisville, and later, the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium, worked with him on assessment and accountability. According to Dr. Popham, tests like the STAAR originated in World War I. When America entered the war, the Army was small. Most people lived on farms and were not well educated and attended mostly one-room school houses, if any at all. Entering the war, the Army needed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and therefore more officers, so they needed to find a way to determine who to pick for officer school. They developed a test, easy to administer, to stratify the soldiers and picked those who scored highest on the test to be officers. Standardized tests since that time have been written with the purpose to stratify: There will always be test takers scoring high and those scoring low, with most in the middle. And, according to Popham, bias exists in the way the tests are written that works against certain groups of people. He said that tests could be written differently, but that it’s very difficult to get test writers to develop tests different from what they have always been for: to stratify and differentiate. The problem for the A-F system and high-stakes testing in general is that there will always be winners and losers. And that is a big reason, with 40 years of testing, the achievement gap still exists.
Finally, the state tests in Texas do not test for all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. And the ones that are tested are sometimes measured by no more than one question, an inadequate method to assess whether the student knows the indicator. For teachers and students, that is little more than mystery learning.
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And this begs the question about student achievement or more important, learning. As Popham stated, the tests used in our rating system are assessment of learning, not assessments for learning. Frustration over the testing system and the punitive accountability system has been building. For several years now, parents have rightly questioned the state’s reliance on standardized tests. They complain that too much emphasis has been put on the tests. They worry that too much time is wasted on preparing for the test, and they don’t want schools teaching to the test. The Legislature has begun to listen, passing bills that have begun to roll back the testing system it built over several decades. I have been working with communities and their districts in most parts of the state and I hear this repeatedly. Parents and communities may not be opposed to standardized testing, but they don’t want everything based on it. And they don’t think it is an accurate representation of the quality of their district or an adequate measure of student learning. Parents and community members are capable of developing measures and implementing systems that they believe do a better job of telling them that their children are learning: measures that mean something to them and that they value.
What is needed is for Texas to move to a robust community-based accountability system. No one denies the state’s valid and vested role in education. Some form of standardized testing could be a part of that system, but it should not dominate it. What could be standardized is a framework that assists local communities in developing measures, accountability mechanisms and reporting processes that do a better job and have real and valued meaning to parents and communities as well as the state. Ironically, the state is already working on a school improvement framework that increases local accountability, even while it implements the A-F system. It would be better to dump the A-F and work on the possibilities of a state-community partnership and system that is based on real measures that people value and understand, measures for learning that actually achieve the goal of school improvement and high-level learning for all students, regardless of the communities in which they live; an accountability system that accurately assesses the students' learning, the work of the teachers and overall worth of the campus and district. The truth is, neither the affluent communities in Texas nor those facing economic decline embrace the high-stakes accountability system and the over-reliance on once-a-year multiple choice exams. They know their schools are about more than that and want a different system that measures it. The results will be empowering, invigorating and hopeful for both districts in affluent communities and those that face the challenge of diversity and poverty that strive to lift up their children and their community every day.
Dr. Stephen F. Waddell, a visiting professor in the College of Education at the University of North Texas, is known as a leader in public education in Texas and across the nation. Dr. Waddell was a founding member of the Texas Visioning Institute and served as a member of its Design Team leadership group. The publication of its “Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas” was a landmark event spearheading massive change in legislation and transformative classroom practice. He participated in passing legislation that created the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium, which the Legislature and State Board of Education continues to look to for new state standards and accountability models. Throughout his 20 years as superintendent, Dr. Waddell served various sized districts, the last being the Lewisville Independent School District. He retired from that position in 2015. His career spanned 36 years as a public educator.