Despite student achievement possibly going up in many Texas school districts, it is anticipated about 25% of public schools will see a drop in the letter grade that marks their performance due to a change in the state’s A-F accountability system.

Libby Cohen, Senior Director of Advocacy at Raise Your Hand Texas, said school letter grades impact both local business leaders’ and the community’s perception about the quality of education being offered, but the grade leaves out vital information.

For high schools, a key component of this rating, the Career, College, and Military Readiness Indicator (CCMR), will be retroactively applied based on the performance of students who graduated in 2022, which means there’s nothing schools can do to change the outcome. In the previous system, 60% of high school graduates had to demonstrate CCMR for a campus to earn an A rating. Under the new framework, that threshold has been increased to 88%.

At a glance, the A-F grading system may seem simple, but there’s more than meets the eye to navigating the Texas Education Agency’s complex accountability system.

The impact on Houston school districts

In Aldine ISD, schools have seen increases in student achievement, but all of those improvements won’t be reflected by the updated A-F grading system.

Dawn Rodriguez, chief of accountability, assessment and analytics, said the percentage of Aldine ISD students who are considered CCMR-ready according to TEA standards has increased by six percentage points in the last year.

“We absolutely want to celebrate that increase because it means more kids are prepared, and we're providing choices and opportunities for our students,” Rodriguez said. “... We are seeing increases across the board, but unfortunately, because of the way that A-F ratings are now measured, public perception is going to be that our ratings are going down and we're not preparing our students.”

Bob Popinski, Senior Director of Policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, said CCMR scoring is a lagging indicator, meaning that the new standards will look at seniors who graduated the previous year—before the new scoring system was introduced.

“When you raise the bar on A-F accountability rating and CCMR in the middle of the school year, you’re not giving school districts, campus principals or teachers time to react to those changes,” Popinski said. “There are potentially hundreds of campuses that are dropping one to two letter grades because of that increase in CCMR indicator threshold, even though student performance has increased.”

Inaccurate public perception

Rodriguez said it’s always the simplest things that are the most complex, and the A-F grading system doesn’t show the bigger picture. A district’s letter grade has a sweeping impact in its community and can even affect businesses’ and families’ decisions to move to an area when real estate agents show available properties.

Cohen said the deeper meaning behind how a letter grade is conceived and what it means often remains a mystery. No one is really explaining how a school receives a letter grade, yet most people associate an “A” with exemplary, a “B” with average, a “C” with needs improvement, and an “F” with failing.

Rodriguez said after 16 years in her position, she can count on one hand the number of real estate agents who have reached out to get a better understanding of a letter grade. The letters help market and sell a neighborhood, but what do the letters really mean for the community?

Chief of Staff Sheleah Reed said misperceptions about letter grades and the quality they represent can cause cognitive dissonance for parents and the community. Additionally, what letter grades are measuring isn’t what students need to succeed in the real world.

“No one has said, ‘When my student graduates, I want them to say they’ve mastered STAAR,’” Reed said. “Really, employers are looking for leadership skills, the ability to manage their emotions, the ability to manage their time and granular things like financial literacy. I'm not positive that the accountability system is designed to specifically measure those things alone.”

This sentiment is echoed by the Katy business community as well.

“Soft skills are crucial in the workplace as they complement technical expertise, fostering effective communication, collaboration, and adaptability among employees,” said Matthew Ferraro, IOM, president/CEO of the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce. “Candidates aiming to stand out should highlight interpersonal skills, such as empathy, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities during interviews.”

What A-F letter grades leave out

Popinski said the TEA’s accountability system has no way of measuring soft skills local employers are looking for – participation in extracurricular activities; programming for students and parents; or Career, Technology and Education programming.

“We should really be more concerned with getting these students ready to enter the workforce, whether they do so with a high school degree, workforce certification or some type of college degree rather than if they take the STAAR test well,” said State Representative Sam Harless from Spring, Texas. “Businesses are looking for hard workers with a solid foundation of education and couldn’t care less if they can bubble in answers on a scantron. Giving greater attention to the career tech programs that lead to good paying jobs should be a highlight of our A-F system.”

In Aldine ISD, the CTE programs available for students are developed with the district’s local industry partners to set students up for career success in the area.

Because the district is near the Houston Intercontinental Airport, students can earn certifications in private pilot licensing and aircraft mechanics, Rodriguez said. In addition, the district offers teacher pipeline pathways and is exploring more certification opportunities in the healthcare industry.

“Our CTE department does a really good job with their task force of listening to the industry and providing opportunities for students to get both certifications and real work experiences,” Rodriguez said. “Some students have internships and they're earning money for their families, but they're also getting a certification that's directly tied to the region.”

Improving the system

Raise Your Hand Texas spoke with over 15,600 Texans, including business leaders, to ask what the state’s accountability system should measure. Largely, the public opinion has been in favor of de-emphasizing STAAR and end-of-course tests.

“The public wants to make sure things like AP classes, dual credit, fine arts, extracurricular activities, and participation in programs such as Pre-K are actually being accounted for within A-F letter grades so communities and business leaders have a true understanding of what kids are learning throughout the education process,” Popinski said.

Raise Your Hand Texas released A Report from the Measure What Matters Assessment & Accountability Council in October 2022, ahead of the 88th Regular Session. It includes a number of indicators the state can use to design the educational systems our Texas students and families need and deserve. The council recommends adding in micro-credentials for career exploration at the middle school level as well as an additional workforce partnership indicator at the high school level.

“CCMR indicators set our kids up for success, but I worry that we are overusing the resulting scores to rank schools when it was never intended for that,” said Kelli Moulton, chair of the Raise Your Hand Texas Measure What Matters Committee. “Unfortunately accountability scores that rank schools force political decisions versus decisions based on what is best for the student. We should never limit a student’s experience just because it is easier to measure. Instead we should look to the students and fulfill their needs.”

Cohen said Texas’ accountability system needs broad representation, and it’s essential to make direct connections with superintendents and local school districts to understand what kind of CTE work is taking place.

“We need lots of different stakeholder groups coming to the table around what our accountability system should look like, including business leaders, given that preparation for career is a shared goal that business leaders and educators have for our public school system.”

To learn more about ways to improve local districts’ success, sign up to receive information from Raise Your Hand Texas through various avenues:To stay looped in on the education issues impacting local communities, follow Raise Your Hand Texas on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

The above story was produced by Summer El-Shahawy with Community Impact's Storytelling team with information solely provided by the local business as part of their "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.