New school accountability system is flawed, education experts say

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SWA-02-2017-1-2The preliminary results for the Texas Education Agency’s new A-F accountability rating system that were published Jan. 6 have school districts across the state up in arms, especially the portion of the ratings that measures postsecondary readiness. About 60 percent of the nearly 1,000 school districts in the state received a grade of C, D or F in that category.

Out of seven Travis County school districts, only Eanes ISD received higher than a C in Domain IV, which measures postsecondary readiness. Austin ISD scored B’s in both Domain I and II but it scored a C in Domain III and a D in Domain IV.

The Austin ISD board of trustees, following the lead of numerous other school districts across the state, voted Dec. 19 to pass a resolution calling for legislators to the repeal the A-F system.

“I would impress upon the Legislature to define the purpose of this [A-F system],” said Kendall Pace, AISD board president and at-large place 9 trustee, following the vote. “It feels more punitive than it is supportive.”

In a Senate Finance Committee hearing held Jan. 24, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said although three of the categories, or domains, within the new rating system have clear metrics, the postsecondary readiness domain is a “strange mix of remaining qualifiers that don’t necessarily fit well together.”

The new rating system is required by House Bill 2804, which was passed during the 2015 legislative session. The bill required the TEA to present an informational report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2017.

The A-F system will replace the current accountability system that simply states whether school districts met standards under certain performance indicators. The A-F rating system, which will be fully implemented in 2018, will give districts and their campuses an overall grade of A, B, C, D or F as well as an individual grade in five domains: Student Achievement, Student Progress, Closing Performance Gaps, Postsecondary Readiness, and Community and Student Engagement.

The results published Jan. 6 only measured the first four domains and reflect a system that is a work in progress, TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan said.

New A-F school rating system ignites controversyCalculating Domain IV

Domain IV looks at three variables at the high school level to measure postsecondary readiness: the graduation rate, the percentage of students graduating with a higher-level graduation plan, and college and career readiness.

To measure college and career readiness, several indicators are considered, including SAT and ACT scores, postsecondary credits earned and how many students took Advanced Placement courses. The indicators that were not measured for the preliminary ratings but will be used in the final ratings in 2018 include the number of students who enlisted in the armed forces and the number of students who earned an industry certification.

Callahan said the Domain IV ratings may change by 2018 because the TEA did not have all the data required under HB 2804. The bill requires the TEA to gather data that the agency was not required to gather before.

Under HB 2804, all campuses are to be graded on postsecondary readiness, but a district’s score will only consider the postsecondary score for its high schools in most cases. For Domain IV, elementary schools are graded on the number of students who are chronically absent, and middle schools are graded on the absenteeism rate as well as the dropout rate.

According to Pace, the D letter grade assigned to AISD for postsecondary readiness is largely impacted by chronic absenteeism in elementary and middle schools and therefore is an unfair representation of the district’s ability to prepare students for life after high school.

Pace suggested eliminating the postsecondary readiness indicator for elementary schools altogether.

“The current indicators are a flawed approach,” she said.

Pace also criticized the system’s blanket approach to determining postsecondary readiness, resulting in the lackluster performance of niche groups in certain areas affecting a school’s grade as a whole. She referenced McCallum High School, which received a failing score in the postsecondary readiness domain—a result she said was largely influenced by the poor performance of minority students in AP courses.

“It is misleading for a highly performing school’s reputation to be so negatively affected by the potentially poor performance of a small group of students,” she said.

Vanessa Dainton, former AISD teacher, parent to two AISD students and vice president of the Austin Council of PTAs, or ACPTA, argued that by measuring diverse schools or districts with the same standards as their homogeneous counterparts, the A-F system is setting them up for failure—especially considering the evidence that minority groups do not fare as well as Caucasian students when it comes to standardized test scores, the sole indicator for Domains I, II and III.

“We know that standardized testing can be innately biased, so to use standardized testing to measure success across the board doesn’t make sense,” she said. “You have to look at diversity with the school.”

The ACPTA has not yet taken a position on the A-F rating system.

SWA-02-2017-1-AFDomain IV trends

Out of the 150 school districts that received an A rating in Domain IV, more than two-thirds of them are categorized as “rural,” or having less than 300 students, school districts by the TEA. By comparison, AISD is categorized as a “major urban” school district, meaning its enrollment is the largest in its county, and at least 35 percent of its enrolled students are economically
disadvantaged.

Because of the differences of the socioeconomic makeup of Texas school districts, Dainton suggested a more suitable alternative would be to allow districts to develop their own accountability systems based on the values and priorities of its community.

“I definitely think that would be more in line with trying to make it more of a balance, which I think AISD and [AISD] families would value more,” she said.

College readiness

The problem with determining whether students are ready for college-level courses is that there is no common definition for college readiness, said Raymund Paredes, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner of higher education.

“There’s a great variance in what might be college readiness at a community college and what might be college readiness at [The University of Texas] or Texas A&M University,” Paredes said.

Shasta Buchanan, executive director of the Office of College & High School Relations at Austin Community College, said providing early access to higher education helps high school students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for college.

“ACC’s high school programs give students, particularly those underrepresented in higher education, an accelerated path to college and workforce training,” Buchanan said.

ACC works with school districts like AISD to help students earn college credits through dual-credit, early college high school and career academy programs. 

“We engage students in an environment that provides guidance for college success, real-world experiences for workforce mastery, and support to ensure course and credential completion,” she said.

Next steps

Despite the fact that school districts across the state are seeking to repeal the A-F rating system, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said A-F will not be repealed or replaced. State legislators seem poised to move forward with the new system.

Some bills that have been filed in this legislative session either add more indicators to Domain IV or slightly change the wording in the Texas Education Code for the accountability system.

During the Senate Finance Committee hearing held Jan. 24, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he would devote part of this session to refining the domains.

The primary author of HB 2804, former Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, retired in 2015. The joint bill author, Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, declined comment to Community Impact Newspaper.

Additional reporting by Emily Donaldson

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Olivia Lueckemeyer
Olivia Lueckemeyer graduated in 2013 from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree in journalism. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2016 as reporter for the Southwest Austin edition before her promotion to editor in March 2017. In July 2018 she returned home to the Dallas area and became editor of the Richardson edition.
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