Almost every school and every school district in Texas got a report card Wednesday, spelling out for parents, students and anyone else paying attention how the Texas Education Agency believes the institutions it oversees are performing.
The new, Legislature-approved measures are easy to read and make it easier to compare schools and districts than the old "met standard/improvement needed" evaluations previously handed out by the TEA. This time around, every district in the state gets a letter grade from A to F based heavily on how its students perform on the state's STAAR exam. Individual schools are ranked the same way, although, for 2018, the state isn't translating the schools' numerical grades into letter form to give schools a year to adjust to the new system.
"The A-F system is a transition from where we used to be," Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday. "We used to grade schools on a pass/fail basis. While that's important to help lift up the bottom, it does not support a process of continuous improvement. ... Providing clear performance information to district leaders allows them to focus on students in a way they would not otherwise be able to do."
Proponents of the new rankings believe that they will push school improvement by providing better, simpler school performance evaluation. Knowledge, their thinking goes, should breed accountability.
"Texas’ new A-F accountability framework will kick-start the conversation around school quality by providing Texans with accurate, accessible and actionable academic achievement data about schools and districts," former Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams said Tuesday before the first batch of rankings was released. "Accurate and accessible school and district ratings provide actionable data for educators and the public alike."
Morath, a former Dallas ISD trustee, said the rankings should be especially helpful to parents.
"We want to make sure that parents know how well their kids' schools are performing," Morath said. "Everything we can do to empower, embolden and further support parents in how they support their kids only strengthens our society as a whole and certainly strengthens our education system."
Dallas ISD received a "B" from the state in the initial round of rankings, which are based, in addition to STAAR results, on student college readiness, student improvement as a whole and how well the district is doing promoting better performance among subgroups like special education students and students for whom English is a second language.
“We are proud of our tremendous gains in Dallas ISD, and our families, teachers and staff should feel great accomplishment in what we have done together,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said of his district's new ranking. “But this is not the finish line, we have just started this race. We still have much more work to do.”
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Despite the efforts of Williams, who began the push for A-F rankings a half-decade ago, and Morath, who's helped guide the new system to implementation, TEA's new evaluations aren't without their critics. Stephen Waddell, a visiting professor at the University of North Texas and the former superintendent of Lewisville ISD, says that A-F scoring fails to provide positive reinforcement for the schools being scored.
"It's inherently a negative or a shaming kind of reporting system," Waddell says. "I don't know that any district is going to be happy with anything below an 'A.' For those that score lower, it's going to be very, very difficult for them in terms of their appearance in their community, the way parents react to it and the way Realtors, or those looking to relocate, would be reacting to it."
The scores themselves aren't as easy to understand as they might appear to be, Waddell says.
"I think there's a couple of real, inherent problems with this system," Waddell says. "The advocates for the system are claiming that it's easier to understand for parents and the community, that it's clearer. I just don't think that's the case. There's a very complex conversion system the state uses to take the data that they have, through the STAAR test, primarily, and convert that to letter grades. Parents aren't going to understand how that's done. They really won't know what that means other than, hey, I think that looks bad or, hey, I think that looks good, but they really don't know what it's actually telling them."