When the State unveiled its new A-F system to grade school districts and their campuses last year, there was plenty of griping. Many superintendents spoke to families to explain the letter grades and some school officials complained that the State accountability system was oversimplified and too reliant on standardized testing.

Within a few months, the State will again release letter grades for districts and campuses, but this time some local school districts will have their own accountability systems to accompany the state-issued grades, in an effort to provide more context.

Alamo Heights, East Central, and Northside independent school districts are members of the Texas Public Accountability Consortium (TPAC), a group of almost 45 school districts working to build a community-based accountability system that can be used and customized by each of Texas’ more than 1,000 school districts.

“State accountability is really just focused on the STAAR assessment and there are so many more things that we do in the school district and we want to make sure that our community is aware of it and that we are accountable to our community for more,” said Taffi Hertz, East Central Independent School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Around 2012, the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) began to ponder how to develop an accountability system designed around student benefits rather than “something that is designed to highlight the bottom 5 percent of schools,” said TASA Director of Learning Leadership Services Eric Simpson, referencing the “improvement required” and “met standard” system previously used to designate passing or failing districts and campuses.

In the years since TPAC launched, more than 60 districts have participated in discussions about how best to forge a local accountability system.

East Central ISD is in its third year of working with TPAC. In the fall, it released results from the first version of its accountability system. The three categories on which East Central ISD rates itself on are post-secondary readiness, staff quality and commitment, and student safety and well-being.

Within these categories are numerous data that measure the number of students who earned industry certifications, community partnerships that were established, students who scored a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams, average staff daily attendance and retention rate, and campus support visits made by instructional specialists.

The district also factored in qualitative data. In the well-being category, East Central evaluated itself on programs implemented to reinforce student safety and resources used to develop a positive social-emotional learning culture.

Alamo Heights ISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Jimmie Walker, told the Rivard Report that district staff members feel that they owe their community more information than what is reported by the TEA.

AHISD had already been working to gather extra data, including the number of parents attending parent conferences and community members coming to Back to School nights, under a requirement from a previous piece of legislation. When that requirement was dropped, Alamo Heights continued to collect and analyze the information because officials found it useful.

Alamo Heights’ rough draft of its accountability system includes the data about parent engagement. After about a year of work, district officials working on the project collaborated with parent and administrator advisory groups and took their first draft to the school board for approval two weeks ago.

In June, the district will receive STAAR scores, which will also be included in the draft, and the complete system will go back to the board for presentation and will be posted on the district website. Walker anticipates that the second year of data collection will have more of a campus emphasis so each individual school can produce its own report.

The community-based accountability systems emerged as a way to provide more context to what is often described as a simplistic letter grade system. With this added context and data comes the challenge of providing more information so families can fully comprehend the information for themselves. While it may be easy to discern the difference between an A and a C on a TEA report card, it can be harder to tell whether 30 parents coming to conferences is good, bad, or just average.

Alamo Heights plans to meet with community members and district partners to set benchmark levels and goals for various measurements.

“The first year, we are just curating the information,” Walker said. “If we have, say, 74 percent of Howard [Early Childhood Center] staff in professional development, is that exemplary? We would just be shooting in the dark. We need to curate and say we had 74, and then 76, and then 82, so let’s make exemplary 85 percent.”

The newest San Antonio district to the accountability consortium is Northside ISD. When the A-F ratings were first released, Superintendent Brian Woods wrote to community members, cautioning them against reading too much into the letter grades.

“First, the notion that A-F ratings provide simplicity in understanding school and district quality is misguided,” Woods wrote. “The rules behind A-F appear simple on the surface but with just a little analysis yield neither simplicity nor transparency. In fact, it takes over 100 pages in the state’s Accountability Manual to explain the new system and how letter grades will be calculated.”

Last week, Northside joined the TPAC districts in the district’s first meeting on the topic.  Northside was interested in studying areas not factored into the A-F ratings, including fine arts, 21st-century workforce development, second language acquisition, and gifted and talented programs, said Brenda Ward, Northside executive director of assessment, accountability, and continuous improvement.

Ward anticipated that Northside would put together a working group to focus on forming a community-based accountability system and start community meetings on the subject next year.

Community-based accountability systems are different from the TEA’s pilot program of local accountability systems that came out of House Bill 22 from the 2017 legislative session. The bill allows districts and charters to develop performance measures to locally assess progress and performance. These measures eventually could impact campus ratings on the A-F system.

No San Antonio districts participated in the pilot program launched in 2017.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.