State House and Senate Differ on Changes Needed in A-F Rating System for Schools

After 2 a.m. Thursday morning the Texas Senate produced a bill tweaking but not fundamentally fixing the A-F ┬árating system for public schools slated for its first real use in the coming school year. The A-F grades for schools have been highly controversial in the minority of states where they have been adopted, and the Texas version had a rocky test run earlier this year when the Texas Education Agency published “as if” grades for districts and campuses. In many cases the simplistic grades did not seem to reflect real achievement or match the underlying complexity of what is happening in schools as gauged by other measures. But the Senate version of HB 22 nonetheless sticks with the plan to pin a single A-F letter grade on each district and campus, based heavily on students’ scores on state tests that are of questionable validity and reliability.

In the Senate’s wee-hours debate, Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) offered an amendment to delay by one year the implementation of A-F grades, but that proposal was rejected 21 to 10. So was another amendment by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) that would ensure students with high mobility–predominantly low-income and minority–are weighted just as heavily as others in the ratings. Lucio’s amendment highlighted a key problem with the high-stakes A-F rating scheme. When the purpose of testing is to produce oversimplified campus and district ratings that can trigger state-imposed sanctions, the pressure intensifies to make more and more allowances for variables like student mobility to adjust the ratings, rather than using the test results more as a diagnostic tool to help identify and meet individual students’ needs.

The House version of HB 22 is much more sensible. It does away with the idea of a single overall grade, instead proposing a more realistic report-card approach showing various grades in different domains of student achievement, school progress, and school climate. The House version also delays implementation of A-F ratings by two years, until the 2019-20 school year, to give TEA time to work out the many kinks exposed in the rating system so far. And the House-passed HB 22 also does a better job of taking performance measures other than standardized tests into account. These are the salient differences, though the bills have many other provisions, especially after the Senate version was amended to include some unrelated items last night.

The two versions of HB 22 now must be reconciled, and there is not much time to get it done. The Senate changes will not be eligible for House action until Friday, and any House-Senate deal must be published by Saturday midnight and voted on in both chambers by Sunday midnight. Word is that the House and Senate authors, Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), already are deep into “pre-negotiations” on these accountability/testing issues.