Last week, Dallas ISD joined 233 school districts and a handful of advocacy groups in signing a letter asking the Texas Education Agency to pause a measure that would retroactively move the goalposts on its A-F school accountability system.
Almost every other North Texas school district did, too, including Frisco, Fort Worth, Plano, and Richardson.
Called the A-F Accountability Refresh, the TEA’s plan was to recalibrate the program following its adoption five years ago, which gave a letter grade to each district and all of its schools. Many districts are concerned that updates to the “cut” scores for the College, Career, and Military Readiness (or CCMR) benchmark will drop districts’ scores a letter grade or more even if performance has improved.
“Cut” scores distinguish between performance levels. They are used to classify students into categories that assess how close they are to mastering the benchmark, and how close districts are overall at helping students make progress on those benchmarks.
The letter is addressed to Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Senate Education Committee chair Brandon Creighton, and House Public Education Committee chair Brad Buckley. The districts asked that the TEA “pause its planned refresh so that the legislature can re-evaluate the accountability system holistically.”
At a state House Committee on Public Education meeting held this month, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was questioned about agency’s plans.
“If you set ‘cut’ scores higher, all things being equal, ratings will go down,” Morath confirmed.
A-F was adopted five years ago, at a time when many public school students weren’t ready for college, a job, or the military. Those results have improved in the five years since implementation, and the TEA’s refresh proposes increasing requirements by as much as 47 percent. It also will be applied retroactively to last year’s performance results, despite the fact that school districts had not been informed of the new metrics and goals at that point.
The districts and advocates argue that the TEA’s proposal to raise the “cut” score needed for a high school to receive an A in the CCMR category from a 60 to an 88 so suddenly was unfair. Their letter also says that it’s unfair to apply the standard to last year, too, because “districts no longer have any influence over the performance of those students, and it is unreasonable to apply new standards retroactively.” The districts maintain that last year’s students wouldn’t be present to benefit from any improvements a school made to address the new goal.
It also comes as the state rolls out a redesigned State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (or STAAR) exam. Schools are still assessing learning loss attributed to the pandemic. School districts say while they agree that the scoring system does need a refresh, a pause is in order.
The TEA says it came up with the new scores because too many schools were hitting its 60 point benchmark, and that almost 70 percent of students who meet the metric for college, career, and military readiness are successful in college at least one year after graduating high school.
At the same meeting, the commissioner told lawmakers that the state didn’t require the refresh—it’s entirely up to him to set the “cut” scores.
“That’s what the statute tells us to do,” Morath told legislators. “Statute tells us to post—basically to adopt—the rules for the accountability system in the year that it is happening. And since those two indicators, the CCMR indicators and the [graduation] rate indicators, are lagged by one year, it always has worked like this.”
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), who is a former Austin ISD school board president, took issue with Morath’s interpretation of the statute. She argued that it doesn’t require him to adjust the accountability system specifically at this time, and certainly not as dramatically as his agency is proposing.
“For the last five years, we’ve known what that goal is, our districts have known what that goal is,” Hinojosa said. “This is the first time in five years where we have set a goal and are retroactively applying (it), or districts didn’t know what that goal was to the prior results.”
Above all, districts say that the sudden and significant changes the A-F refresh brings go against what the grading system was intended to do: make it easier for the public to know how schools are performing. Increasing the score requirements so quickly, they say, “will create the misconception that high performing schools are drastically declining,” even if performance actually improved.
“In the midst of a teacher shortage, the last thing school districts need is another false narrative that drives a wedge between schools and the families they serve,” the letter says. “No public relations campaign from the TEA will be adequate to combat the misperception that our schools are suddenly worse than they were last year.”
The STAAR test will be administered between April 25 and May 5 across the state. Districts will likely get preliminary results sometime in June.