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 Dallas-Fort Worth school districts

Jason Cooper, executive director of Career and Technical Education in Lewisville ISD, said he agrees with the mindset that students should graduate with a postsecondary plan, but takes issue with how the TEA measures student success.

“We have kids that are already getting hired in the industry,” he said. “Do you mean to tell me the kid with an internship isn’t career-ready?”

Cooper said there’s also a problem with the military readiness aspect of CCMR, because a student with no prior involvement in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps programming would be considered ready by CCMR standards just for enlisting.

“Listing a kid as CCMR-ready doesn’t mean anything,” Cooper said. “It just means they took the right courses...a kid enlisting in the military is not a reflection of what the district does, in my opinion—but you get a CCMR point for that.”

Cooper said even if a student expresses interest in a Career and Technical Education program late in their high school career, he would still connect them with their program of interest, regardless of whether they would be able to meet CCMR criteria.

“At the end of the day, we’re always going to do what’s best for our kids and their futures,” Cooper said. “We’re still going to give them the skills they need, even if their CCMR score won’t benefit the overall score of the program.”

Cooper said there’s still time for younger students to alter their academic course, but high school juniors and seniors might end up being pigeonholed just so schools can get a checkbox.

“We can change our major four or five times in college, but 14- and 15-year-olds have to pick one thing and stick with it? That’s a tough sell for me,” Cooper 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, teachers time to react to those changes,” Popinski said. “There are potentially hundreds of campuses that will drop one to two letter grades because of that increase in CCMR indicator threshold, even though student performance has increased.”

Cooper said it is difficult being evaluated on criteria they didn't know about two years ago, and this means schools are now working with 2023-24 graduating seniors whose certifications no longer count for them.

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.”

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 could still decrease from a B to a C or an A to a B despite improving upon standards available to them at the time.

“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.”

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 “C” with average, and an “F” with failing.

“There’s a lot of impacts that are unintentional with these scores,” Cooper said. “We have so many acronyms in education; Real estate agents don’t know what CCMR is or about all of these changes.”

Local partnerships with the business community

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 CTE programming.

“There are thousands of students enrolled in CTE programs, and districts have been intentionally building them to prepare students with skills that are meaningful for their region,” Popinski said.

Lewisville ISD offers CTE courses and programs for cosmetology, pharmaceutical technicians, welding certifications and more. The certifications allow students to either go directly into the workforce, or work at a part-time job while they attend college.

The district also has existing CTE partnerships with many partners in the DFW area including Avondale dealerships, Medical City Lewisville, and Great Clips, but is always looking for more.

Improving the system

Raise Your Hand Texas spoke with over 15,6000 residents and business leaders across Texas to ask what the state’s accountability system should measure. Largely, public opinion has been in favor of de-emphasizing State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and end-of-course tests.

Cooper said a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment and accountability simply won’t work, and just because something works well for one district doesn’t mean it can be applied en masse.

“An unintentional consequence of the accountability system is that some districts can’t sustain great programs because they can’t meet the accountability standards, so they’re cutting those opportunities away from their kids.”

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 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.

“Our business climate is dependent on the health of our public schools,” said Chris Wallace, President/CEO of the North Texas Commission. “Deliberate and thoughtful modifications to the accountability system should be based on a democratic process including input from all stakeholders rather than by unilateral decision-making from the Texas Education Agency.”

What can you do?

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 its "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.