The 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.

Eanes ISD received a grade of B in Domain IV, which measures postsecondary readiness, and earned A’s for the remaining domains. Lake Travis ISD received a grade of C in Domain IV, the lowest grade tallied by the district, which otherwise scored A’s and B’s.

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.

“The A-F [grading] system can be unfair to school districts,” EISD Associate Superintendent Todd Washburn said. “Any time you take a complex learning environment and boil it down to a single grade, you don’t come close to explaining the actual situation.”

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 metrics for the postsecondary domain read] more like anything the commissioner can think of except for the STAAR test,” Morath said.

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.

The Texas High Performing Schools Consortium—a group of 22 school districts that study and develop suggestions for learning standards and accountability—suggested Texas legislators repeal the A-F grading system as part of the group's priorities list released Jan. 17.

Representatives from EISD and LTISD, districts that are members of the consortium, said their districts are not considering passing resolutions that call for the system’s repeal at this time. However, the representatives said the western Travis County school districts have concerns similar to those shared by other districts across the state.

“I don’t know of a school district that wants to avoid accountability measures,” LTISD Superintendent Brad Lancaster said. “I’m not of the idea that we have to repeal the system because it’s likely to change in the future, and it’s too soon to tell what that will look like. But I do hope we see some revisions.”

Lancaster said he appreciates TEA trying to make the accountability system more meaningful and detailed, but he wants the system to be easy for parents and staff to understand as well.

“The old ratings were kind of vanilla,” he said. “An A-F [grading] scale should be able to work, but the devil is in the details. I appreciate that these are complex, but we’re not there yet.”


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 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.

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.  

Domain IV disputed

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.

“Domain IV is misleading,” Washburn said. “It would be enhanced if we could look beyond absenteeism and used data that better reflects success.”

He said EISD coordinates with families to give students opportunities to enrich their learning through trips and activities away from school, and other factors, such as illness, can skew results.

“Based on the performance of our students, we don’t feel like those opportunities away from school have had a [negative] impact on them academically,” Washburn said.

Lancaster said he sees the appeal of an accountability system that judges all campuses on the same criteria, but does not know how an entity could actually measure an elementary school’s ability to prepare students for college.

“I don’t think Domain IV is a relevant category for an elementary or middle school,” Lancaster said. “If our attendance is bad, then create an attendance category, not postsecondary readiness.”

College readiness

According to Lancaster, 85 percent of LTISD graduates go to a four-year college or university, and 95 percent attend at least a two-year school. However, the district earned a C in Domain IV.

“If you look at those numbers, and then the grade, it doesn’t really compute,” he said. “If Lake Travis High School is a C, we’ve got to figure out what is being looking at.”

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.”

New A-F school rating system ignites controversy

Next steps

EISD Communications Director Claudia McWhorter said the district’s board of trustees will discuss the new accountability system in February and could decide to pass a resolution in support of the system’s repeal in the future.

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.

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

“I do think an accountability system is important,” Washburn said.  “Having data that districts across the state can look at in order to identify best practices and which areas need to improve is important. Putting a letter grade or number to it isn’t necessarily the best way to do that.”

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