Texas schools got a first glimpse of their future as the Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued a preview last week of what their ratings would look like under the State’s new letter-grade system. While these new A-F ratings are not yet official, they offer schools and districts an opportunity to prepare for what will be a more rigorous system.

San Antonio ISD (SAISD), which saw 20 schools rated “improvement required” under the previous rating system, will face increased pressure under the new system. The district is supporting the letter-grade ratings because of its commitment to improvement, regardless of how accountability is determined.

“We have hopes that the new accountability system will eventually be a better system than what has existed in the past,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.

“It’s important to know that the system is still very preliminary, but we will learn from what it is telling us and use it with our baseline data from the 2015-16 school year to continue to implement our reforms to increase student achievement. We expect the criteria will evolve and change as districts give feedback to the TEA.”

How the new ratings are determined are likely to change before the final system debuts in 2018, said Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath in a statement on Jan. 6.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath
Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath

“No inferences about official district or campus performance in the 2015-16 school year should be drawn from these ratings, and these ratings should not be considered predictors of future district or campus performance ratings,” he stated.

The new system, anchored in HB 2804 and passed by the Legislature in 2015, will assign a series of letter grades to each school. The previous system rated schools as either “met standard” or “improvement required.”

While SAISD is supporting the new system, some school districts in Bexar County have included opposition to the new rating system in their legislative priorities. Like 144 other districts across Texas, the North East ISD school board has passed a resolution opposing the A-F system. 

“The Commissioner’s proposed rating system utilizing A through F grades for schools and districts includes five domains and numerous unrelated indicators to determine a single grade, leaving the public with an invalid, disconnected reflection of school quality,” the resolution states.

The NEISD resolution points out that the system relies too heavily on STAAR scores, and, thus, raises the stakes of the standardized test even more. 

“We embrace meaningful accountability that informs students, parents, and teachers about the learning needs of each student and each school,” the resolution states.

The criteria for the new system are similar to its predecessor in three of the five domains that contribute to the overall letter grade. Domain I is a straight pass/fail performance measure for the STAAR test. Domain II measures growth or student improvement year over year. Domain IV measures college readiness.

Domain III creates a projection of how a district should be performing based on the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in its schools. Districts will be accountable to that projection, not just the state averages. Districts such as San Antonio ISD (SAISD) and others in Bexar County, where more than 90% of the population are economically disadvantaged, will benefit from these considerations.

The State, in both funding and accountability, acknowledges that it takes more public resources to educate students who lack the private resources of their middle class peers. Since most districts do not have the resources required to close that gap, the new grading system acknowledges that there is some adjustment to be considered.

HB 186 filed by State Rep, Diego Bernal (D-123) calls for a study into the real cost of educating “special populations.” But the bill, and any other bill calling for actual increases to school funding, likely faces an uphill battle.

The NEISD resolution opposing the new system passed on Dec. 12, 2016, even before the work-in-progress results were posted. 

“As I told our community and our staff members last month before the letter grades were released – good or bad – these grades do not adequately capture the actual effort and effectiveness of a school or district,” NEISD Superintendent Brian Gottardy said.

The results were mixed, not only for NEISD, but for schools across typically high-performing districts in Bexar County. NEISD scored a B in Domains I and II, a C in Domain III, and a D in Domain IV.

“North East ISD is taking the letter ratings with the grain of salt they deserve,” Gottardy said. “This system isn’t congruent with the system that’s already in place. NEISD has 68 campuses. Each one of them met standard on STAAR. The vast majority of NEISD schools routinely outperform the state.”

Seth Rau
SAISD Legislative Coordinator Seth Rau

SAISD, however, previously had decided to support the new system. The addition of more sophisticated criteria accounting for the effects of economic disadvantage is a step in the right direction, according to SAISD Legislative Coordinator Seth Rau.

SAISD scored an F in Domain I, a C in Domain II, a D in Domain III, and an F in Doman IV.

“The scores are a painful but accurate reflection of where we are,” Rau said.

He would like to see more nuance to the Domain III criteria; however, he conceded that “it’s the fairest simple measure [of the effects of special populations on district test scores].”

The district will offer input to the TEA on several adjustments it would like to see to current criteria, Rau added.

Pedro Martinez is welcomed to the Young Men's Leadership Academy at W. W. White Elementary School. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez is welcomed to the Young Men’s Leadership Academy at W. W. White Elementary School in March of 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The district also plans to weigh in on how the Domain scores are weighted in calculating the overall score. The State requires that 55% of the overall score be derived from Domains I, II, and III. Within that 55%, however, the breakdown is unclear.

Another 35% of the total comes from Domain IV, post-secondary readiness. This domain relies too heavily on chronic absenteeism at the elementary level, Rau said.

HB 2804 also included the possible addition of criteria for Domain IV, allowing for “any additional indicators of student achievement not associated with performance on standardized assessment instruments determined appropriate for consideration by the commissioner in consultation with educators, parents, business and industry representatives, and employers.”

The final 10%, not included in the work-in-progress numbers, will come from Domain V, a self-reporting criterion for community engagement.

 As SAISD officials work to improve student performance, district leadership wants families to see a parallel between its schools’ rating and students’ experiences.

“We think that having transparent ratings for families is a good thing,” Rau said.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.