Despite student achievement having gone up in many Texas school districts, 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 ratings impact communities’ perception of the quality of education being offered but leave out vital information when navigating the Texas Education Agency’s complex accountability system.

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 Austin school districts

David Doerr, journalism and Career and Technology Education teacher in Austin ISD, said industry-based certifications are important factors in CCMR scoring, and he takes issue with how the state’s list is created.

“There's no transparency about who gets on the list, and who doesn't get on the list,” Doerr said. “The problem teachers face is that we see a list of approved industry-based certifications, and we don’t get a chance to advocate for another exam that might be valuable to the industry, but it’s not approved.”

By leaving out exams that could be beneficial, districts are at a disadvantage and unwilling to pay for tests that may have value for students but aren’t approved by the state and won’t be measured by the accountability system, Doerr said.

Moving assessment and accountability goalposts

Bob Popinski, senior director of policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, said the new CCMR scoring standards will look at seniors who graduated the previous year—before the new system was introduced.

“When you raise the bar on A-F accountability ratings 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 dropping one to two letter grades because of that increase in CCMR indicator threshold, even though student performance has increased.”

Doerr said changes like the mid-year threshold increase not only negatively impact morale in the classroom, but undermine the reputability of the accountability system.

“It doesn't seem credible,” Doerr said. “I can't say that I would believe the ratings if they came out based on what the state has been proposing. If the purpose of an accountability and rating system is to communicate the quality of a school, the system is failing itself.”

The rating system also impacts families’ choices to live in a district and businesses’ decisions to open in a community.

“I wish the accountability system was more direct,” Doerr said. “... I'm afraid that our realtors, who I know have a big impact on where people decide to live, can be misled by the current A-F rating system.”

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.

Local partnerships with the business community

Popinski says 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 CTE programming.

Kelli Moulton, chair of the Raise Your Hand Texas Measure What Matters Committee, said, “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. 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.”

Doerr said he’s talked to local employers about certification exams the state offers, and they’ve never heard of these exams - yet they are on the state's list of approved certifications.

Doerr teaches a variety of journalism and media courses, and he’s heard what graphic design business leaders want to see are portfolios showcasing applicants’ work. To help students meet those expectations, some Austin schools are partnered with E4 Youth, a nonprofit that focuses on giving students employability skills, including creating portfolios that showcase their talents and skills.

Inaccurate community perception

Cohen said TEA’s tinkering with scoring formulas is giving communities the wrong impression of what’s happening in their district. High schools that were improving on every CCMR measure available to them at the time could still see ratings decrease.

“These problems of perception are real issues for school districts, and it undermines families’ confidence as well as employer confidence in their ability to partner with the school district,” Cohen said. “What that letter grade communicates is really significant—not just for a school district but for an entire community.”

“What the Texas Education Agency commissioner is doing is moving the goalposts for our schools after the game is over and saying that they did not make the cut because they failed to score within the goal,” said House of Representatives member Gina Hinojosa. “I think school leaders need to be transparent and upfront with our communities and not be fearful. This is happening through no fault of theirs. To have a new standard retroactively applied on our schools is 100% the doing of our commissioner and our governor.”

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.

“At Ascension, our mission calls us to advocate for a compassionate and just society with our words and our actions,” said Geronimo M. Rodriguez, Jr., Texas Chief Advocacy Officer, Advocacy and External Affairs at Ascension Texas.

Rodriguez also serves as the Chair of the Talent and Education Council at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “Now more than ever, businesses need to retain and attract employees who are critical thinkers and whose actions are in alignment with the mission of the employer. Critical thinking skills help individuals adapt to a fast changing world and social and emotional learning helps students manage their emotions and response to stressful environments,” said Rodriguez.

Improving the system

Raise Your Hand Texas has spoken with over 15,600 residents and business leaders across Texas to ask what the state’s accountability system should measure. Largely, the public opinion has been in favor of deemphasizing State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and end-of-course tests and making sure 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.

Doerr said the way he sees it, the accountability system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, and as it stands, the system is inflexible and unable to accurately reflect what students are capable of.

“It needs to start with a system that allows voices from the business and industry communities to be heard and to have meaningful power over the system—one that can adapt to changing needs,” Doerr said.

Cohen said making direct connections with superintendents and local school districts to understand what kind of CTE work is taking place is essential.

“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,” Cohen said.

In October 2022, ahead of the 88th Regular Session, Raise Your Hand Texas released A Report from the Measure What Matters Assessment & Accountability Council. It includes calls to action and a number of indicators that 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.

To learn more about ways to improve local districts’ success, sign up to receive information from Raise Your Hand Texas through various avenues:
  • Sign up for the Across the Lawn newsletter.
  • Listen to the Intersect Ed rulemaking podcast episode.
  • Connect with your local Raise Your Hand Texas Regional Advocacy Director.
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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 its "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.