Next week, the Texas Education Agency will open its grade books and reveal scores that assess student achievement and academic growth for the state’s 1,200 school districts and more than 8,000 campuses.

The ratings will look different than they have in the past. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told reporters Tuesday that this is the fairest accountability system Texas has ever used, aimed at getting all students to the same educational level, no matter the challenges they may face at home.

“We do believe that as a matter of public policy in the state of Texas that all students can learn and achieve at high levels,” Morath said. “The entire instructional framework, the entire educational framework for public education in Texas is actually predicated on that concept. …”

The most apparent change in the TEA’s evaluation of schools will come at the district level. For the first time, districts will receive a letter grade ranging from A to F, based on a number grade from 1 to 100. An A represents exemplary performance, a C shows acceptable performance, and an F indicates unacceptable performance.

Some educators have criticized the system as oversimplifying a complex topic and reducing schools to a letter grade that might not be reflective of a school’s overall value.

This is the last year individual campuses will be rated solely on a pass-fail or “met standard” and “improvement required” scale. Starting in August 2019, campuses will, like districts, be given a letter grade.

A large portion of the grades will continue to rely on STAAR test results. The STAAR exam is a standardized test that public school students take starting in third grade. It evaluates students on how well they understand concepts, called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, that the state believes every student at that grade level should know.

How grades are awarded

TEA will assign letter grades based on how well districts perform in three areas: student achievement, student progress, and closing achievement gaps.

Seventy percent of the overall score is based on student achievement or student progress. The state will use the score from the category the school or district performs best in.

Student achievement is about “what the students know and can do,” and takes into account STAAR scores; college, career, and military readiness indicators; and graduation rates, Morath said. STAAR results carry greater weight at elementary and middle school levels where the same college and career readiness indicators do not apply.

Student progress measures the growth of students either through individual student growth year-over-year or relative performance, where students are compared to others at peer districts. When TEA officials measure student growth, for example, they will reward districts that have more students who improve their STAAR scores from third to fourth grade.

“Imagine for a second that you have a student that is significantly below grade level that walked into school this year,” Morath said. “Over the course of the year … the kid grew [the equivalent of] two years academically in the one year you had them. But they started the year so far behind that the student is still not at grade level. That is still worthy of celebration.”

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath

When TEA officials measure relative performance, they look at how students did on STAAR scores in comparison to districts with similar percentages of economically disadvantaged students. Morath said this comparison in particular helps address concerns that A through F accountability ratings are unfair to districts with high poverty rates.

For this portion of the overall grade, the TEA will use the score from the category, either achievement or progress, in which districts perform best.

In theory, districts that already show high test scores and graduation rates and may have little room for academic progress will use student achievement, while districts with low scores and greater strides to make will use progress.

The remaining 30 percent of the grade is based on how well districts “close the gaps.” While student achievement and student progress look at the performance of the average student, closing the gaps narrows in on hyper-specific groups of students.

It measures the performance of specific student groups divided by race, socioeconomic background, language learning ability, and enrollment status, in addition to other categories.

How well districts score in these three domains results in a number grade from 1 to 100 that will correlate to letter grades.

Campuses also will be evaluated in these three domains, with a resulting number score, but not a letter grade. Schools receiving a 60 and above will be rated “met standard” and those below will get an “improvement required. The campus number scores will be used in the future to assign letter grades.

High stakes for some districts

While accountability scores help parents evaluate the performance of individual schools, they also carry grave consequences for chronically low-performing campuses and districts.

State law mandates that after a school has been deemed failing for two consecutive years, it has to submit a campus turnaround plan and implement strategic efforts to improve the school. If the school receives a failing grade for three more consecutive years, the commissioner of education must either order the closure of the campus or appoint a board of managers to govern the entire district in place of the elected board of trustees.

Fall 2018 is the first time schools and districts will face this consequence. If schools at risk receive an additional failing grade, an appeals process allows districts to question or refute their scores. If the rating stands, however, a board of managers could be installed or the campus could potentially be closed at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

At the start of the last school year, San Antonio Independent School District had six schools at risk of campus closure. SAISD leveraged a state law that allows districts to partner with charter operators to delay the potential for accountability consequences for two more years at Stewart and Ogden elementary schools.

The district chose to phase out Irving Middle School, another campus deemed failing, and introduce a new school, Irving Dual Language Academy, but three campuses remain at risk of closure, should they receive a failing grade: Tafolla Middle School, Rodriguez Elementary School, and Dorie Miller Elementary School.

Accountability ratings released next week will determine the future of these campuses and signal whether other campuses will be pushed closer to the deadline next August.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.