The Texas Education Agency’s new system for rating school districts received a failing grade from educators across the state Friday — which was hardly a surprise.
The A-F Accountability Rating System, as it’s called, gave districts and their campuses letter grades for the 2015-16 school year in four domains, or categories: student achievement, student progress, closing the gap and postsecondary readiness.
Local school districts received mixed grades. Killeen Independent School District received a C in student achievement, a B in student progress, C in closing the achievement gap and an F in postsecondary preparedness.
Cove ISD received grades of C, C, B and D in the same categories, respectively.
That last category, in which both Killeen and Cove ISDs received poor grades, is determined by several factors: chronic absenteeism and drop-out rates at the elementary school and middle school levels, and graduation rates and higher education planning at the high school level, according to the TEA report.
The TEA was careful to point out the report is not meant as an official performance indicator, only an example of how the new A-F grading system — which was approved by the Texas Legislature in 2015 — will be used when it replaces the current accountability system next year.
Still, when the TEA made the grades public Friday, the results brought outcries from educators’ groups and led to a Waco news conference by area school superintendents, at which administrators were sharply critical of the new TEA system.
The Texas Classroom Teachers Association issued a statement complaining that the methodology for determining the letter grades was unclear and overly complex. Another complaint was that the grades didn’t always provide an accurate representation of a district’s performance.
The Texas Association of School Boards’ director called the ratings “a symptom of the larger sickness: an unhealthy fixation on standardized testing and standardized expectations.”
Educators and administrators have a strong argument on this point. The differences among districts statewide don’t always lend themselves to across-the-board criteria. For example, in military communities such as Killeen and Copperas Cove, where the population is more transitory, graduation rates and dropout rates often fall below statewide norms. Under the new TEA system, this contributes to a poor letter grade for that category.
Standing alone, letter grades serve as a stark declaration of success or failure, compared with the previous accountability system that used phrases such as “met standard” or “improvement required.”
Certainly, school districts and their individual campuses must be held accountable for the educational services they provide their students. A high-performing district should be recognized for its success, and a poorly performing district should be called to account and subsequently monitored.
But in determining a district’s level of performance, a host of variables must be taken into account, including any unique demographic factors that could affect educational outcomes. As with any standardized process, the new A-F grading system appears to fall short in this area.
The Legislature will have the opportunity to improve upon the system when it convenes this month. Hopefully, lawmakers can succeed in making the criteria more representative and transparent.
Having said that, however, school districts that received bad grades Friday shouldn’t simply dismiss the low marks as being part of a flawed process. In the case of Killeen ISD, where two high schools, a middle school and two elementaries earned nothing but D’s and F’s, something is seriously wrong.
Local school boards and administrators must take a hard look at the categories in which their districts and campuses scored worst and commit to making improvements, where possible.
The new TEA system may need to be fixed, but fix the schools as well.