Area educators say the methodology behind the state’s new academic accountability system is so confounding that not only are many of them challenged to explain how the system actually relates to students’ test results but it also defies easy explanation to parents who might inquire about district and campus rankings. And that was what state legislators reportedly hoped the new system would offer when they approved legislation mandating the change in 2015.
Twenty-nine public and charter school superintendents at a press conference Friday at the Region 12 Education Service Center blasted the new “A-through-F” rating system, which isn’t officially finalized and won’t go into effect till August 2018. The ratings system was passed as part of a House bill during the 84th Legislature. With less than a week before the 85th Legislature begins, superintendents called the system unfair and said it did not accurately portray what successes school districts accomplished daily.
Some also questioned the timing of the preliminary grade release.
“Across the state already, numerous districts from the north, east, west and south regions are asking the Legislature to repeal House Bill 2804. That includes districts such as Coppell, Highland Park and also Axtell ISD and La Vega ISD,” Axtell ISD Superintendent J.R. Proctor said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a small school or a large school. It doesn’t matter if it’s a school that’s highly rated or needs improvement. They’re all asking this bill be repealed. That should answer the question that the grading mechanism is not seen as valid from the A student to the F student.”
The rural Axtell school district met standard overall last year for academic accountability, but under the new system the district scored the letters C, F, B and C in all four of the new system’s measurable domains. This isn’t including the individual domain scores for each campus, which all met standard last year.
While superintendents throughout the state have written open letters opposing the system, Friday’s press conference was the first time almost all McLennan County superintendents publicly took a stance on the matter together. Region 12 has more than 70 school districts overall. Fifteen of McLennan County’s 20 school districts were represented Friday. Other superintendents came from as far away as Corsicana, Copperas Cove and Killeen ISD.
The new law required school districts to receive preliminary work-in-progress letter grades by Jan. 1. The letter grades, based on measured data and state testing scores from the last academic year and only touching on four of five possible domains, were given during winter break, superintendents said. The methodology behind the new measurement ratings wasn’t given by the state until shortly before Christmas break.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued a statement Friday emphasizing the preliminary grades were for informational purposes to meet the law’s requirement and represent models likely to change before the system becomes effective: “No inferences about official district or campus performance in the 2015–2016 school year should be drawn from these ratings, and these ratings should not be considered predictors of future district or campus performance ratings.”
While the formula for the rating system is complex and an overview can be found online, the system rates a school or district by four different domains. Domain 1 is student achievement, Domain 2 is student progress, Domain 3 is “closing the gaps” and Domain 4 is postsecondary readiness.
Kim Ellis, Waco ISD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said expectations compared to the current ratings system are different and children are expected to achieve a new advanced level in some domains because of new target scores and calculations.
“Domain 2 shows growth, and we were so pleased with Domain 2 in our district. Every single campus in Waco ISD met standard in Domain 2. We are moving children in the right direction,” Ellis said. “However, when you apply the new formula to that, it’s actually not a new formula, it’s just new cut scores. For instance, this year, you had to score a 32 or above to meet standard in Domain 2. The new score in the A-F system is a 53 — a 21-point increase. If your school this year has a 30 in the new A-F system, it’s a 35. At the high school, in the current system, it’s a 17. In the new system, it will be a 40.”
The reason behind the change in target scores is unclear to administrators, superintendents said, and other domains are even more complex, either because of certain formulas or a strong focus on certain key measurements such as chronic absenteeism at the elementary school level. These could easily cause a school to earn an average ranking of C or lower, Ellis said.
“I was asked to make this simple,” she said at one point during her brief presentation. “This is not simple and there is not anything simple about it. It’s a complex system and the ratings that are applied to that is what makes it the most challenging.”
While the A-F accountability system might present challenges in interpretation or accuracy of what’s actually happening in a district or on an individual campus, none of the superintendents Friday spoke of rebuking an accountability system completely. But they pushed for a system based on long-term and sustained quality factors — not a single day of testing.
“What should this accountability system look like?” Killeen ISD Superintendent John Craft said. “I believe schools and districts are a culmination of learned experiences which students acquire over time. The quality of a school or district should be determined on how well this culmination of experiences prepares each and every school member for their future endeavors, whether it be higher education or occupational. Quality, in large part, should not be determined by the results of a single assessment given on a single day, producing a statistical average that is then translated into a letter grade.”
For McGregor ISD Superintendent Kevin Houchin, the controversial letter system came as a shock for a school system proud of its academic accomplishments. The district not only met standard last year but earned six academic accountability distinctions and was named best placement honor roll by the College Board, a national organization focused on connecting students to college success. But the new ratings plummeted McGregor down to two C’s, a B and an F in the domain measures. Ironically, the F was for Domain No. 4 — postsecondary readiness.
“You can see the confusion this might cause for my community,” Houchin said. “That’s just one example of the confusion we’re dealing with. On a couple of the domain ratings, you have to get a 99. On another domain, I believe you have to get a score of 98. I simply say that because the point of this was to be clear to all stakeholders about the campuses and their performances. The non-educators in this room — if I ask you, ‘What is an A?’ — 100 percent of you would say it’s 90 to 100. What is a B? You’d say 80 to 89. So there are some arbitrary ratings that are in there.”
With the next legislative session starting Tuesday and a heavy push for school vouchers by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, some superintendents questioned the timing of release of the grades and its possible impact on debate in Austin, already promising to be intense. School vouchers would give families public funds to attend private or religious schools and are directly tied to politicians advocating for more school choice.
For more information or to see your district’s A-F preliminary ranking, visit the Texas Education Agency website at www.tea.texas.gov.