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 San Antonio school districts

Jennifer Benavides, principal of Fox Tech High School in San Antonio ISD, said she and her team have been worried about meeting new CCMR criteria, as the most recent changes to State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR Test) already hurt the school’s score.

Because Fox Tech is a choice school in SAISD, the school focuses on work-based learning experiences with two pathways: law and health. Students who are enrolled often have opportunities for internships and externships, but the accountability system doesn’t measure that, Benavides said.

“That internship component not being included in the accountability system hurts us,” she said. “The one little piece that’s measured doesn't give the state or our constituents a very good glimpse of what our school is about or or what our priorities are as a school.”

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.”

Benavides said the accountability system puts enormous pressure on school staff.

“Most of your campus leaders at the high school level are very highly motivated, very competitive, and very data-driven,” Benavides said. “When accountability systems are changed midway through, that doesn't fare well for us... It adds an additional layer of stress and worry when our focus could be on the big picture and the holistic student experience.”

Benavides said she takes into account what’s best for her community and her students with every decision she makes, but in this case, the students have already graduated and she has no leg to stand on.

“Thank you for telling me that those standards change now—for kids that are gone and already in college or started the workforce or in the military,” Benavides said. “Holding a group that already graduated to new standards is not feasible and it's not realistic.”

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.”

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 Career, Tech and Education 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.

Benavides said 87% of students at Fox Tech come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and her top priority is creating pathways and educational opportunities for them to get ahead.

“We want to create job opportunities so students who need to work and go to school simultaneously are afforded that ability,” she said.

Fox Tech partners with University Health System and Methodist Hospital Metropolitan, and students are guaranteed interviews at the institutions once they complete one of four health pathway certifications.

Benavides said one of the patterns she’s seen since COVID-19 has been students preferring to stay local after graduation. To make sure those students still have opportunities and support, Fox Tech shifted its offerings.

“We had to change our catering to students and ensure that we're aligning our programs to universities that are right here in our region, so students have no problem ensuring that their degree plans are degree-applicable in this area,” she said.

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 even though they were 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.”

Benavides said the public has its own implicit bias about which letter grades are good or bad, but the accountability system isn’t that simple.

When it comes to homeownership, real estate agents may tout higher scores as better schools without knowing how the accountability system works.

“Those ratings don't necessarily indicate whether schools or whether districts are good or bad,” Benavides said. “I don't believe real estate agents understand the A-F rating system unless they live with an educator or know somebody who's in education.”

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 de-emphasizing State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and end-of-course tests.

“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.

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:

• 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.

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.