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

In a Senate Finance Committee hearing held Jan. 24, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said he has heard “buckets” of feedback regarding the A-F system. He said there has been a small, quiet group in support of the evaluation, but a multitude of others had louder criticism.

A-F system ignites controversyMorath said although three of the categories, or domains, within the new rating system have clear metrics, the domain that measures postsecondary readiness is a “strange mix of remaining qualifiers that don’t necessarily fit well together.”

The new rating system is required under 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.

Many Texas school district officials have expressed their dissatisfaction with the preliminary grades, especially the grades in Domain IV, which measures postsecondary readiness. Most school districts in Collin County, which in large part received A’s and B’s in the first three domains, did not score higher than a C in Domain IV. McKinney ISD scored an A, B and C in domains I, II and III, respectively, and scored a C in Domain IV.

The MISD board of trustees has passed a resolution asking the Legislature to repeal the A-F system and was part of a select group of districts that submitted suggestions to state lawmakers Jan. 17 hoping to improve college and career readiness within public schools.

A-F system ignites controversy

MISD Superintendent Rick McDaniel said he strongly disagrees that a single letter grade could represent what is occurring within MISD, adding that the new scoring method disregards the qualities and gifts of the district’s 25,000 students.

Calculating 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; students who completed career and technology, or CTE, courses; and how many students took Advanced Placement courses.

A-F system ignites controversy

Geoff Sanderson, chief program evaluation officer at MISD, said he was not surprised by the scores given to MISD and surrounding districts, adding that based on the information released prior to the results, he expected some lower scores throughout the district.

However, he said, he did see some surprises in neighboring districts, such as Highland Park ISD, which he said traditionally rates among the highest in the state, also receiving a C in Postsecondary Readiness. Dallas ISD, which he said traditionally sees lower scores, received a B in Postsecondary Readiness.

Sanderson said the current system—which has three categories of, Met Standard, Met Alternative Standard and Improvement Requited—needed some improvement because the categories are not very descriptive. In accountability results from the 2015-16 school year, he said the current grading standard showed that 94 percent of schools across the state were rated as Met Standard. But, he said, that does not mean that 94 percent of schools across the state received A’s in the A-F ratings.

“I don’t dismiss the [A-F] results completely as far as the information that has been made available, but I do think we will have some strong disagreement as far as how [the TEA assigns] grades and what they translate that performance score into on the alpha system,” he said. “[The TEA hasn’t] provided descriptions of the letter grades, so I don’t even know if the C means we are satisfactory.”

Domain 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” school districts by the TEA. By comparison, MISD is categorized as an “other central city” school district, meaning it is one of the largest school districts in Collin and Denton counties. Rural school districts can have an enrollment of less than 300 students.

Under HB 2804, all campuses are 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 also are graded on the absenteeism rate as well as the dropout rate.

Malta ISD, for example, which scored an A in Domain IV, is a rural school district in far West Texas with one elementary school and an enrollment of less than 200 students. The district’s score in Domain IV is based on the absenteeism rate only.

The only ISD categorized as an “other central city” school district to receive an A in Domain IV is United ISD. The district in Laredo has more than 40 campuses with an enrollment of approximately 43,000 students. The district received a C in Domain I and A’s in the other domains.

College Readiness

A-F system ignites controversyThe problem with determining whether students are ready for college 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,” he said. “It means different things to different people.”

According to The College Board, nearly 32 percent of Texas students in the class of 2015 met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark.

“There’s a persistent problem with the numbers of students who require developmental—or what is also known as remedial—education before they are able to take credit-bearing courses, particularly at community colleges but also at universities across the state,” said Harrison Keller, UT deputy to the president for strategy and policy.

Paredes said most first-time college students struggle most with math, writing and science.

Next steps

As MISD and other school districts seek to repeal the A-F rating system, state legislators seem to be moving forward with the new system.

In a statement, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who sponsored HB 2804, said the system is staying.

“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 Senate Finance Committee hearing held Jan. 24, Taylor said he would devote part of this session to refining the domains so they would be better indicators of student performance going forward.