When the Texas Education Agency published preliminary grades using the new system Jan. 6, the scores evoked anger and frustration at RRISD’s McNeil High School in Northwest Austin, Principal Courtney Acosta said.
“The way they are labeling my campus does not adequately portray the amazing things that are happening on my campus,” Acosta said.
The A-F rating system, which will become official in 2018, gives districts and their campuses an overall grade of A, B, C, D or F as well as individual grades in five domains measuring Student Achievement, Student Progress, Closing Performance Gaps, Postsecondary Readiness, and Community and Student Engagement.
Preliminary ratings measured the first four domains and reflect a system that is a work in progress, TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan said.
McNeil’s report card included an A in Student Achievement. However, in the Student Progress, Closing Performance Gaps and Postsecondary Readiness domains, the school was given C’s, indicating Acceptable but not Recognized or Exemplary performance, according to the TEA.
Acosta said she took exception to the middle-of-the-road ratings, since the TEA recognized McNeil in 2016 for its efforts in those three areas, including a special distinction in postsecondary readiness.
“It’s really hard as an educator to not have a very passionate response about this,” Acosta said. “It invokes a lot of emotion to see how your school scored.”
All together, RRISD, Austin ISD and Pflugerville ISD received passing grades of either A, B or C in the first three domains. But none scored higher than a C, and AISD registered a D, in Postsecondary Readiness.
Although the TEA plans to update its grading calculations, preliminary scores roiled many Texas school districts that argued the new standards rely too heavily on standardized testing and contradict some schools’ proven success.
A-F proponents say the letter grades offer a more accurate measure of accountability, and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said A-F will not be repealed or replaced.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friends-wood, who sponsored House Bill 2804 in 2015 that led to the creation of the A-F system, said the new grades are not going away.
“Our students and parents deserve a grading system that helps individual students, their campuses and their districts transparently measure academic success and clearly delineate where improvements are needed,” Taylor said in a statement.
AISD trustees unanimously passed a resolution in December in favor of repealing the A-F system, and RRISD’s school board has supported amending A-F in the current legislative session.
PfISD has also been wary of the new A-F system.
“These ratings offer only a partial picture of a district or school; they do not define a district or school,” PfISD Communications Officer Steve Scheffler said. “Regardless, we will work immediately to identify the areas that need improvement and begin the planning process.
Cathy Malerba, RRISD’s executive director of assessment and evaluation, said parents often rely on the state’s accountability ratings to see if their children’s schools are meeting standards of performance.
But since A-F emphasizes a comparison of scores between schools, the A-F ratings are less meaningful when it comes to determining a particular school’s performance as well as that of a particular district, she said.
“I think A-F could be meaningful, but unfortunately, districts are not being rated by an objective standard. They are being ranked against each other,” Malerba said.
Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in January that he has heard “buckets” of feedback regarding the A-F system. He said a small, quiet group supports the evaluation but that a multitude of others had louder criticism.
Critics have focused on the rating that measures postsecondary and college readiness, known as Domain IV.
Nine out of 10 school districts in the Austin area—and about 60 percent of districts statewide—received grades of C, D or F in that category.
Kendall Pace, president of AISD’s board of trustees, criticized the way Domain IV grades are calculated for elementary schools and middle schools, which is largely based on the schools’ rates of chronic absenteeism. Pace said she believes the A-F system also unfairly rates entire schools based on the performance of small groups of students.
Regarding Domain IV, one problem with determining whether students are ready for college-level courses is there is no common definition for college readiness, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said.
“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. “There’s no certain definition of college readiness. It means different things to different people.”
A handful of A-F-related bills have been filed in the 85th Texas Legislature, including some that either add more indicators to the Postsecondary Readiness domain or make accountability rating-related changes to the Texas Education Code. However, state lawmakers appear poised to continue with A-F.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing in January, Taylor said he would devote part of this session to refining the domains so they would be better indicators of student performance going forward.
Acosta said she plans to work to ensure McNeil is compliant with the TEA process, but she would not change school policy or alter educational programs just to chase higher ratings. Moving forward, her job is to understand and meet the needs of her students and campus community, she said.
But as both an RRISD principal and a parent of two children attending elementary school in the district, Acosta said A-F, as it stands, does not accurately represent school performance.
“It is just such a poor representation of what a school has to offer,” she said.
Emily Donaldson, Lindsey Juarez and Olivia Lueckemeyer contributed to this story.