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Dallas ISD’s New State Accountability Ratings May (or May Not) Come in 2024

Dallas ISD is one of more than 50 districts that chose to take the state to court after lengthy delays in new guidelines on Texas’ accountability rankings. Here's why that's important.
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Dallas ISD superintendent Stephanie Elizalde, here at an unrelated press conference, says districts sued the Texas Education Agency to stop the release of last year's A-F scores because they weren’t provided the new guidelines in time to make adjustments to improve outcomes. Dallas ISD

A lawsuit, potential legislative action, and a series of delays have prevented the release of the state’s accountability ratings for public school districts. That means we won’t know how Dallas ISD fared last year until 2024—or possibly not at all.

“I can explain it to you, but I can’t make it make sense,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said of the Texas Education Agency’s decision to drastically change the benchmarks schools and districts must meet.

Her statement came months after the district joined more than 200 others in asking the Texas Education Agency to postpone its A through F accountability rating update until they understood the new benchmarks. The rankings can impact how a district is perceived by the community it serves. It can also trigger far more serious repercussions; the state can force a district to close a school if it sustains F ratings over multiple years.

Elizalde spoke from the the library at McShan Elementary one September morning. McShan, she said, was a good example of why it was necessary for districts to challenge the changes. The school, which earned a B in 2022 and was on pace to improve that to a higher B in 2023, would likely plummet to a C or even D under the new rubric.

Elizalde can point to page after page of improvements the district has made year-over-year, in some cases exceeding the state average. How could the district be so alarmed if it was doing so well?

The state’s A through F accountability system awards a letter grade that ostensibly makes it easier for parents and the community to understand how their school is doing. Last year, the TEA announced an A-F Accountability Refresh, which would recalibrate the program, establishing new benchmarks—known as “cut” scores—to distinguish between performance levels. Those levels indicate how close a student is to mastering that benchmark and how well districts are doing at helping students progress.

In March, 233 school districts and a handful of education advocacy groups signed a letter asking the TEA to pause the rollout of the new benchmarks until they could review a final set of guidelines. Districts argued that lower ratings would inevitably follow without the opportunity to make adjustments to improve the odds that schools would meet these new benchmarks. 

In May, a bipartisan group of lawmakers asked Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to reconsider the changes, which included state representatives John Bryant, Jessica Gonzalez, Julie Johnson, and Rhetta Bowers.

The agency argued that when A-F was adopted in 2019, many public school students graduated without being prepared for college, a job, or the military. Those results have improved since the system was implemented. The sticking point, districts said, was that the agency planned to retroactively apply the changes to the prior year’s performance before schools could adjust their plans to meet the new benchmarks. 

Before the refresh, a district could get an A if 60 percent of its graduates were college, career, or military-ready upon graduation. Under the refresh, an A would require 88 percent, meaning that even if a district improved its score from, for instance, a 58 to a 62, it would still fail to meet the new benchmark. 

The new guidelines also made earning a high grade for improving students’ State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (or STAAR) scores more challenging. Districts felt this was unfair because it followed the rollout of a newly redesigned STAAR test, which began the same year.

“I’m not sure what the actual grade is going to be,” Elizalde said. “I can tell you how we performed on the assessment. I can’t tell you the rubric that they’re going to use to grade us.”

What the district does know is that its schools are improving. Elizalde has binders full of charts and data that show growth in numerous ways, whether it be math and reading scores by Black students or the reading scores of English language learners. The district’s staff has extracted every potential data point from raw STAAR scores. Elizalde can point to where the district would be under the old benchmarks, and how many students approached state standard, met it, or mastered it. But where a student, school, and the district falls on each specific benchmark depends on those “cut” scores, which continued to shift as the TEA made adjustments.

Just looking at district growth in certain scores—for instance, the number of students who are on grade level or above in all subjects—shows the district is improving even beyond pre-pandemic data, Elizalde said. 

“If we were just comparing that and giving ourselves growth points, then I would say that the overwhelming majority of schools in Dallas ISD would be an A,” she said. ”That’s not what’s being scored for us. It’s how much gain did we have. And that’s the conundrum and the paradox—how can we be improving with students on grade level, and celebrating because people worked really hard to get our kids where they are, and then they’re going to see their letter grades, and they’re gonna go, ‘Wait a minute, how can this be?’”

In McShan’s case, the school’s B score could drop by two letter grades. “And likewise for the district—we were an 86, and now that can go as low as a 71,” she said.

Elizalde said she’s struggled to find an analogy for the change proposed by the TEA. She eventually compared it to instructions you might get from doctors.

“Some doctors would be like, “BMI is important. I need you to have a BMI below 24,’” she said. “And then later the doctor is like, ‘I don’t care about BMI, I care about the circumference of your waist, your cholesterol, your triglycerides, and your blood pressure.

“That’s what we have. You have the same doctor, and the doctor used to think this was the most important, and she didn’t tell me she was going to change it, so I kept doing what I’ve done. And I did improve my BMI, but the circumference of my waist is still the same.”

Explaining this to parents and the community also runs counter to the premise of A-F accountability scores. They were touted as a way for people to easily understand how their schools and district were doing. Morath met with superintendents several times, she said, and at one point a district leader asked how to explain the drastic drop in letter grades to the public.

“How can I help my community understand that my scores went up in terms of student academic performance by a state assessment…and get them to understand that there’s a decline in A-F and not even by one—which would be hard enough—but by two grade levels in two grades in some instances?” she said superintendents asked.

“And, you know, the commissioner was like, ‘Well, you’re just gonna have to explain to your parents that a D is like a C and a C is like a B and a B is like an A,’” she said. 

Districts waited all summer for those guidelines and anxiously crunched numbers as STAAR scores came in.

“What we did find out is even running the ‘what-ifs’ by taking last year’s data and applying these rules, when they read when they did those runs, we still didn’t have all the information. So our initial ‘what ifs’ are still off from the new projections our team is doing,” Elizalde said. 

Other districts she’s reached out to share that frustration, with early data indicating that D and F schools could quadruple across the state, going “as high as five times what they had under the previous system.”

The final version of that manual would not be released until October 31—48 days after the new school year started and more than five months after the last day of the 2022-2023 year, the year on which the accountability ratings would be based.

Several school districts filed suit in August to stop the TEA from releasing the A-F scores. By September, the number of districts ballooned to more than 50, adding Dallas ISD and several other North Texas districts as plaintiffs. 

“The Commissioner cannot change the goalposts on school districts by creating new measures, methods, and procedures throughout the school year and then decide to apply them retroactively in a manner that will artificially and arbitrarily lower school districts’ performance ratings,” the lawsuit says.

It also says that the TEA needed to give districts more notice of the changes as mandated by state law, arguing that the details of those changes should have been available before the start of the 2022-2023 school year.

Morath postponed the release of the scores in September. Then, the agency’s guidance outlined that the scores would not be released until the court case was resolved or if the state legislature weighed in. During the last special session, Republican legislators introduced House Bill 1, an omnibus bill that included education funding, teacher raises, and implementation of education savings accounts. It also included a measure that would have prevented the TEA from releasing the 2022-2023 ratings and jettison the current A-F system by 2026. That bill died in the House.

If Texas lawmakers do eventually choose to get rid of the current system, they wouldn’t be alone in doing so. Three of the 15 states that adopted A-F systems since 1999 have since stopped, while several more paused them during the pandemic. One of those three was Michigan, which found bipartisan support in scrapping the ratings. Among those who were glad to see it go was the state’s education superintendent, Michael Rice, who said ratings didn’t adequately convey the complexities of learning and “tried to create the false impression that rating schools was easy.”

By October, Travis County District Court Judge Catherine Mauzy temporarily blocked the TEA from releasing the ratings. In her ruling, she called implementing the new system “unlawful” and found that it “violates Texas law and would cause irreparable harm to Plaintiffs, Intervenors, and all Texas school districts.”

A court hasn’t ruled on the state’s appeal, which could be moot with the possibility of a fifth legislative session looming next year. There is an apparent appetite to at least hold off on releasing the scores, if not eliminate them altogether.

School district leaders like Elizalde want to clarify that they welcome the challenge of a more demanding accountability system. They just want it to be fair.

“To the commissioner’s credit—because I always want to be as objective as I can be—he has always worked to create systems that value growth, and that’s very important,” she said.

The district has already implemented changes to improve outcomes based on the new accountability manual, Elizalde said, which means that these potentially concerning scores could be just a blip.

“I think we’ll have a little bit of slippage, and then we’ll regain. I also think that this is, for all intents and purposes, a one-year issue,” she said. “People will settle in. We’ve made some adjustments. We know what we need to focus on.

“We’ve upped our game. I think it’s a one-year problem, but we have to get past this year and stay as positive as we can.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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