A-F system stirs controversy in many Texas school districts

Nicole Conley Johnson, Austin ISD's chief financial officer, spoke on the impacts of recapture before the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Public Education on Tuesday.

Nicole Conley Johnson, Austin ISD's chief financial officer, spoke on the impacts of recapture before the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Public Education on Tuesday.

A-F scores reveal mixed resultsThe 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 measure 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.

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.

Morath 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 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. This met standard or improvement required system will still be used until the A-F rating system is fully implemented in 2018. The A-F system 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.

“We are not afraid of accountability at all,” said Debbie Gillespie, a regional director on the board for the Texas Association of School Boards. “I think that’s part of what has made public education better. But it needs to be fair, and it needs to be meaningful.”

Round Rock ISD, Pflugerville ISD and Hutto ISD all received passing scores of A, B and C in the first three domains. In Domain IV, none of the districts scored higher than a C, and HISD scored a D.

All three districts echoed Morath’s sentiment that the preliminary ratings are subject to change and still a work in progress—and therefore not entirely indicative of a district’s current status.

“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 start work immediately to identify the areas that need improvement and begin the planning process.”

PfISD received a B in Domains I and III and a C in Domains II and IV.

Todd Robison, communications officer for HISD, said the district is proud of its standing in the top 30 percent of districts for Domains I through III. He noted HISD’s recognition as one of 22 Texas districts on the AP Honor Roll and the district’s awards from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce for postsecondary readiness improvement were not included in the Domain IV grade.

In addition to a D in Domain IV, HISD received a B in Domains I and III and an A in Domain II.

“We will not rest on any ‘good’ grades, nor will we be deterred by any ‘bad’ grades,” Robison said. “Just as a single grade does not tell the complete story of a student, a single grade will also not reflect the hard work of our teachers and staff.”

RRISD, a school district that received an A, A, C and C for each of the domains, respectively, expressed similar sentiments. RRISD joined with other Texas districts and the Texas State Teachers Association to call upon the Legislature to alter the A-F system.

Calculating Domain IVPostsecondary readiness scores spur call for accountability system change

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 AP 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.

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. “There’s no certain definition of college readiness. 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 with math, writing and science.

Domain IV measures SAT scores and students who take AP classes, but it does not specifically measure skills in math, writing or science.

Keller suggest that students struggle with math because high school seniors are not required to take a math course, giving them an entire year of not using those skills.

“If you take time away from math, it’s like learning a language—you can lose it fairly quickly if you don’t practice,” Keller 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

In a statement, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who sponsored HB 2804, said the new system is 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. “I realize that some folks are frustrated with accountability, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know if their hard-earned tax dollars are being wisely spent and that our students are getting the quality education they deserve.”

During the 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.

The primary author of HB 2804, Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, retired in 2015.Postsecondary readiness scores spur call for accountability system change Postsecondary readiness scores spur call for accountability system change