In an effort to stave off closure by the state, Marlin Independent School District officials say they will file an appeal against the district’s standardized testing accountability ratings and join a Travis County lawsuit looking to declare that the 2016 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness for third through eighth grade did not comply with time completion standards.

The decisions to file an appeal and join the lawsuit came during Tuesday night’s board meeting, Marlin Superintendent Michael Seabolt said. Marlin ISD is facing possible closure after it received an unsatisfactory rating for the fifth consecutive year based on STAAR testing, according to preliminary accountability ratings released in August.

Seabolt has been with the district a year and was brought in to turn its performance around and keep it open.

District officials have a Sept. 30 deadline to appeal results to the Texas Education Agency commissioner to see whether it can keep its doors open, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.

Seabolt said at the time the ratings were announced that an appeal was a remote possibility but wrote in an email Wednesday morning that the option became more viable after some research.

“Several issues made the appeal more viable, including the illegal STAAR exams,” Seabolt wrote in the email. “There are other issues that will become public once the appeal is released.”

He did not say when the appeal would be released but said it would be filed before the deadline, a little more than a week away.

As for the lawsuit, the board voted to join as a plaintiff in a case pending in the 98th Judicial District Court in Travis County because of the belief that this year’s STAAR tests were illegal and no student or district should be held accountable for the results, Seabolt wrote in his email Wednesday.

The lawsuit isn’t the only issue the TEA has faced with this year’s STAAR ratings and scores, according to multiple media reports and information from the TEA. In March, more than 14,000 tests were impacted because of a computer glitch, affecting fifth- and eighth-grade reading, fourth- and seventh-grade writing and English I and English II End of Course exams.

The results of those tests were to be excluded from all STAAR index calculations, and officials would ensure no district would be penalized or fail a state standard because of affected test results, according to the TEA.

In Houston, school districts sent a letter to state Education Commissioner Mike Morath, citing almost 100 issues with STAAR testing this year, and the Texas Association of School Administrators also wrote a letter to Morath urging this year’s scores not be used to rate schools or determine whether a child should graduate.

The Travis County lawsuit was filed on behalf of four parents from across Texas, according to the Arnold & Placek law firm representing the parents. The parents are seeking “relief from retention standards, accelerated instruction and accountability requirements to the extent that such is based on the results of these invalid assessments,” according to information on the firm’s website.

“Earlier today, the Texas Education Agency issued a ruling detaching many of the consequences associated with these STAAR results from grade five and grade eight assessments. Determinations at other grade levels are pending,” the firm stated on its website June 10. “Nonetheless, the TEA appears to have passed to local districts the discretion to offer accelerated instruction to its students based on these results.”

The firm goes on to state that it urges local school districts not to take any punitive or remedial actions against students in those grade levels based on the assessment scores.

“Although the TEA has left decisions to local districts regarding the use of the assessments for determining accelerated instruction, any attempt by a district to mandate participation in accelerated instruction or take any punitive or remedial action against a student based on these assessment results would invite affected parents to join the pending litigation and add the local district as a defendant,” the firm stated. “This would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer money when the TEA has already disclaimed the reliability and validity of these results.”

In his email, Seabolt said he hopes the appeal and the lawsuit will help keep Marlin ISD open and give it the time to realize the full potential of the instructional changes put in place for 2016-17.

“We started this last year with somebody else’s team and somebody else’s game plan and we showed improvement,” Seabolt said in August. “I feel pretty confident that progress was made, and that’s what was expected.”

Almost every grade level saw progress in reading, which was the biggest weakness the district had in standardized testing, Seabolt said after accountability ratings were released. In fact, eighth-graders passed the state standard score for the first time in years, and the district met student progress and postsecondary readiness standards, Seabolt said at the time.

Abatement agreement

The district already has been saved from closure once, Culbertson said in August. Last November, district officials signed an abatement agreement with the TEA commissioner to keep its doors open for another year, pending several conditions. But the agreement is only valid for the year, Culbertson said.

As of Wednesday, none of the conditions in the agreement had been implemented ahead of the appeal deadline, Seabolt stated.

Some of the conditions included that If Marlin ISD received “improvement required” in its 2016 ratings, the commissioner would appoint a board of managers to the district, according to TEA documents. The board of managers would exercise all of the powers and duties assigned to the Marlin ISD board of trustees by law, rule or regulation and would govern in the same manner. Texas law states school districts with failing financial or academic accountability scores for four straight years will be closed. Marlin ISD has failed five consecutive years, since 2011.

“I have no idea what the state’s timeline is for the abatement agreement, but I don’t intend to sit back and wait for them to make the first move,” Seabolt said in his email Wednesday.

Once the appeal is submitted, the district will have to wait on a final decision from the commissioner in December, Culbertson said. Once the appeal is in the commissioner’s hands, by law the commissioner could do anything from closing the district or merging it with another, to putting in place a conservator or board of managers, Culbertson said.

In the meantime, as the district waits to hear back on both the appeal and the pending lawsuit, district officials will implement an improvement plan for 2016-17, which also was approved at Tuesday’s meeting. Student achievement is at the core of the plan, Seabolt stated.

“The next step? We teach kids and verify they are learning. Period,” Seabolt wrote in his email.

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