Accountability ratings reveal link to poverty in Cy-Fair ISD schools

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Texas school districts received state accountability ratings this fall, and Cy-Fair ISD campuses appear to be in line with a statewide trend that some educators say is a cause for concern.

More affluent campuses fared better than those with high levels of economic disadvantage in 2017-18, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of CFISD’s 86 schools. Although all campuses earned the Met Standard label for the sixth consecutive year, schools where less than 20 percent of students are economically disadvantaged averaged a 94 rating, and those with 80-100 percent economically disadvantaged students averaged a 76.

“Students from affluent families have many opportunities to build understanding of educational concepts at an early age,” said Linda Macias, associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and accountability. “Research indicates that economically disadvantaged students enter schools academically lagging six months to a year behind their economically advantaged counterparts.”

Across Texas, 58.7 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for reduced-price or free lunches or other public assistance. In CFISD, 50 percent of students fall into this category. Additionally, 45 of its 86 schools exceed the state average.

While the district implements programming to help close the gaps between students from different socioeconomic levels, officials said they also plan to lobby for improvements in state accountability and assessment during the 86th Texas Legislature, including changes to the new A-F accountability rating system that was implemented for districts in 2017-18.

“We’re all aware of the negative perception that is created with letter-grade assignments and the difficulty in helping parents understand,” CFISD Chief of Staff Teresa Hull said at an Oct. 4 board of trustees work session. “They think it’s like the letter grades that students receive on their report cards, but it’s a much more complicated and complex accounting system.”

Misleading measurements?

A-F scores are calculated based on the evaluation of three areas—Student Achievement, School Progress and Closing the Gaps. A similar system is used to identify scores for campuses, although letter ratings will not be implemented for campuses until next year.

CFISD and other districts have criticized the Texas Education Agency’s A-F system since it was established by House Bill 22 in the 85th Texas Legislature in 2017. Macias said she believes the system oversimplifies data.

“The biggest misconception is that the system is simplistic based on an A-F letter grade,” she said. “The system in reality is very complex with over 12,000 data points—most of which are directly related to [State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness] data—and there are many factors that go into determining the letter grades.”

CFISD did not receive an official rating in 2017-18 due to an exemption the TEA gave to districts affected by Hurricane Harvey. However, the district would have earned an 89 overall rating or a B. 

Because STAAR scores are the primary criteria used to calculate ratings, Macias said ratings reflect what is happening in a campus or district on that day rather than comprehensive performance. CFISD’s STAAR scores exceeded the state average in each subject in 2017-18.

“Students are all different, and they learn at different rates,” she said. “There are also factors on the day of testing that may affect how the student performs on the test—sickness, issues at home before they arrive at school. Additionally, not all students express their learning best via a paper and pencil test.”

TEA officials have defended the system, which is designed to communicate a district’s overall annual progress in straightforward language more easily understood than the previous ratings, said Lauren Callahan, TEA media relations and social media manager.

At its October meeting CFISD’s board of trustees adopted a list of legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

The district moved to advocate for the elimination of the A-F ratings and the restoration of the former system, which labeled districts as Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable or Unacceptable. 

CFISD officials also plan to lobby to reduce standardized testing to align with federal requirements. This would mean eliminating the writing and social studies portions of the STAAR tests, both of which had the lowest passage rates among CFISD students in 2017-18. 

“Let the experts, our teachers, locally evaluate writing and social studies,” Macias said. “We believe testing should be reduced whenever possible.”

Socio-economic challenges

In Bridgeland, Pope Elementary School—of which 5.4 percent of students are deemed economically disadvantaged, the lowest in CFISD—received a rating of 97 from the TEA. On the other side of the district, Bane Elementary School—the campus with the highest level of economic disadvantage with 98.3 percent of students qualifying for financial assistance—received a 69.

Schools that score below a 60 are considered to be in need of improvement.

The total student population of CFISD also outperformed the disadvantaged students in every STAAR test in 2017-18.

Nine traditional school districts statewide received an F rating in 2017-18. Of those districts, six had a higher-than-average economic disadvantage rate, according to TEA data.

Nevertheless, Callahan said the TEA denies a “strong relationship” between economic disadvantage and ratings.

“We know that while there may be a moderate factor between a child’s economically disadvantaged status and results, we here at the agency know there is not a strong relationship between the two,” she said.

Children at Risk, a Houston-based research organization focused on Texas children’s issues, has found a relationship between raw achievement scores and poverty but has not determined whether it believes the rating system is unfair, said David McClendon, co-director of the group’s Research Center for Social Measurement and Evaluation.

McClendon said about half of districts with an economically disadvantaged population of 75 percent or more scored an A or a B in their overall ratings. Common factors among high-performing, high-poverty districts include good attendance and nutrition, he said.

Lynda Zelenka, executive director of Cy-Hope, a Cy-Fair nonprofit that works with local students, said she believes economically disadvantaged students experience increased pressures. Parents living in less affluent neighborhoods may not be able to afford extra tutoring, may deal with language barriers or simply might not be aware of the assistance available to their children, she said.

Poorer families also face stark choices on where to spend money, she said.

“When a family is sitting there wondering, ‘Do you take this dual-credit class for $72, or do I put food on the table?’ that parent has to make a decision for the family,” Zelenka said.

Campus, community programming

Despite the trend for economically disadvantaged campuses to receive lower ratings, there are exceptions.

In CFISD, Holbrook Elementary School—where 91.6 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged—received a rating of 88.

The TEA also awarded the school all possible distinction designations based on performance when compared to campuses of similar type, size and student demographics for the third consecutive year in 2017-18. Macias said this is the highest level of recognition a Texas public school can receive.

Principal Abe Lozano said his teachers are collaborative and purposeful in planning lessons as they work to help Holbrook students succeed.

“We believe that our 90-plus percent economically disadvantaged number is only a detail of our story; it doesn’t define our students, and it is not an excuse for poor performance,” he said.

Macias said economically disadvantaged students will have heard about 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers upon starting kindergarten, citing a well-known study by education researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley. However, their performance has improved overall as officials target individual needs, she said.

Students enrolled in full-day pre-K programs at Francone and Holbrook elementary schools are entering kindergarten better prepared than those attending half-day programs elsewhere in the district, officials said. A partnership with Kids R Kids day care in the Copperfield area launched in fall 2017 to implement CFISD curriculum for economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds.

Summer programming also plays an important role, Macias said. According to CFISD, 84 percent of students who participated in the district’s summer literacy program Camp Summit in 2018 improved by at least one reading level.

Zelenka said more affluent schools also tend to have stronger volunteer support systems. Community members can help close the gap through the district’s school adoption program, mentoring and other volunteer opportunities. 

“There are lots of great things going on in our schools that are above and beyond the state accountability system,” Macias said.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Holt

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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