TEA hearings on accountability rules once again shed light on problems with A-F

Throughout the month of June, TEA held public hearings to gather input on the commissioner of education’s proposed amendments and rules for the A-F accountability rating system. Districts will receive a rating of A, B, C, D, or F for overall performance, beginning in August of this year, while campuses will receive A–F ratings beginning in August 2019.

Texas AFT has long opposed the system of assigning single letter grades to districts and campuses. The A-F model is touted as a transparency tool, but in reality it does not give parents the information they need to understand what is going on at their child’s school and would reinforce the misuse of standardized tests as the be-all, end-all of educational performance.

Another lesson from other states is that low grades under the A-F scheme tend to correlate closely with high concentrations of low-income students—serving more as a gauge of socioeconomic disadvantage than of school performance. The real issue is how to get needed resources and community supports into high-poverty schools, not to find a more effective way to stigmatize them and their communities. (If you’d like to dive deeper into the ratings system, visit the “TEA A-F Accountability” page.)

As you’ll see from our comments to TEA below, what seems to be a simple assignment of a letter from A to F, in reality is a rather complex process, one that still relies too heavily on students’ standardized test scores:

TEA has held a series of ongoing stakeholder meetings with staff as they worked on this accountability rating system, but even with staff guidance it has been difficult to fully understand the many moving parts within the proposed rating system. To calculate a campus’ rating, staff demonstrated the calculation and it took between 30 and 40 different steps to reach a single letter grade. Just the “closing the gap” domain alone includes more than 70 performance indicators. While the A-F model is touted as a transparency tool, in reality it does not give parents the information they need to understand what is going on at their child’s school.

The A-F grading still comes down to a single summative letter grade, which still does not give parents and the public an accurate report on how well a school is doing. It would make more sense if there were grades for each individual domain, much like a student’s report card. Campuses should also be graded on class sizes, the quality of teachers, and whether teachers are appropriately assigned. None of these critical factors are currently included in the “domains” that produce the single letter grade.

The rating system’s continued reliance on state standardized tests would reinforce the misuse of standardized tests as the be-all, end-all of educational performance. For elementary and middle schools, “student achievement” will be based entirely on state standardized tests, which have still not been determined to be valid and reliable for the purposes for which they will be used, as required by HB 743, passed in the 84th legislative session. High school campuses will include more measures, such as graduation rates, dual credit, AP courses, etc., but the major emphasis remains on state standardized tests. Although the Legislature intended for alternative assessments such as the SAT or ACT to be used as a valid measure of student success, the standard-setting and equating processes for aligning substitute assessments with STAAR takes more time than what was available in the 2017–18 school year, according to the TEA “Notable Changes” document.

For the 2018 accountability ratings, only “Meets Grade Level” will be included for substitute assessments. This means that students will be at “Masters Grade Level” only upon successfully completing the STAAR assessment. Although TEA will work to identify cut points for “Approaches Grade Level” and “Masters Grade Level” on all substitute assessments, the goal is for this to be in place for the 2020 accountability ratings. These proposed rules will actually have the effect of penalizing schools that encourage students to take these alternative assessments in place of the state standardized test. If a student takes both the STAAR and an alternative test, and then the school reports both scores, the system will accept only the non-STAAR exam, thus preventing this student from achieving mastery level. This is yet another example of how the ratings system is not yet ready to be implemented because it is still not what it was intended to be when the Legislature passed HB 22.

Another concern we have is that the commissioner can set performance standards with little or no advance notice of the criteria by which campuses and districts will be judged before they are evaluated. Parents and the public can have little confidence in a single summative letter grade as a consistent, reliable measure of school performance. The many different authorized adjustments within rule that the commissioner may make provide little transparency to parents and the community about the complexities of evaluating school performance.

Considering the fact that elementary and middle school student achievement is based 100 percent on the STAAR test, we think the agency should request a testing waiver for those campuses and students affected by recent testing glitches and failures during recent administrations of the STAAR tests.

Lastly, we are glad to see improvements like including completions of an individualized education program (IEP) in the calculation for career readiness for students receiving special education services in high school.