TEA releases preliminary A-F grades for school districts

As seen in The Monitor

By Danya Perez-Hernandez

School district officials throughout the state started 2017 with a better understanding of where their districts might stand under the Texas Education Agency’s upcoming accountability system.

Last week, the districts received a “What if” report based on four out of the five domains that TEA is proposing to legislators as part of the new A-F accountability system.

“It is very much a work in progress report,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said last month. “There are tentative A through F domain-based labels coming up in January, but only for four of the domains.”

The agency revealed details of the new system last month, which starting with the school year 2017-18 will rate districts using an A through F letter grade, replacing the current model of Met Standard or Improvement Needed.

The first official grade under the new system will be released in August 2018; in the meantime the current pass/fail model remains.

“I like the A through F system,” said Tom Torkelson, founder and chief executive officer at IDEA Public Schools. “I like it because parents understand it, parents know that an A is good, an F is bad... the current program we have now doesn’t really work at all.”

The system rates each school and district on five domains which are, Domain I based on student achievement, Domain II focused on student progress, Domain III on closing performance gaps, Domain IV on postsecondary readiness, and Domain V on community and student engagement.

These domains and how much they weigh in the districts’ and schools’ overall grade might change as TEA submitted the planned methodologies to legislators for feedback and approval.

But in this preliminary report TEA graded the districts using the proposed methodology and recent STAAR test data to give the public and district officials a better idea of the possible changes.

IDEA, for example, did well in most domains receiving a B in Domain I, and A’s in domains II through IV.

“Obviously, who wouldn’t want to have A’s across the board, right?” Torkelson said. “When I look at our data and I look at where I know we are doing very well and where we have some opportunity for improvement, I think that the accountability system reflects that really well.”

The preliminary reports only include Domain I through IV, due to the legislation asking for TEA to give districts the opportunity to grade themselves on Domain V.

Each school received its own rating as well, and in the case of IDEA, Torkelson said these grades were also reflective of the campuses that might be better established and those that might be newer and have more room for improvement.

“The state’s been sharing this data with us for a long time,” he said. “We’ve known what the data is, we’ve known what our highest performing campuses are, we’ve know what our lower performing campuses are. The only thing we didn’t know from the state is what letter grade would be assigned.”

Once legislators approve a grading methodology, the idea is for each district to receive an overall letter grade, which according to released data could weigh Domains I through III as 55 percent of the grade, Domain IV as 35 percent and Domain V as 10 percent.

Even though there might be change on the overall grading system, Daniel King, superintendent at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, said this gives them a good idea of what TEA is considering the most important performance indicators.

“I think it’s good for us to get this kind of ‘what if’ scenario,” King said. “It kind of lets us know how the state is thinking about grading districts.”

This time around PSJA school district received a C in Domain I (student achievement), an A in Domain II (student progress), and Bs in Domain III and IV (closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness).

Not every district did well in this preliminary report, Donna school district, for example, received two Fs, one in student achievement and the other in postsecondary readiness. The district also had a C in student progress and a B in closing performance gaps.

La Joya school district received two Ds in student achievement and student progress, followed with a B in closing performance gaps and a C in postsecondary readiness.

“There’s always room for improvement, so that just reminds us of that,” said Alda Benavides, La Joya ISD superintendent. “But more than that, students are more than just test scores and schools are more than a letter grade. That letter grade doesn’t really exemplify all that goes into effective schooling.”

Benavides said it’s hard to capture what goes into effective schooling considering most of these indicators are based on standardized testing. But she said the district will use these scores as an opportunity to refocus on areas that need attention and replicate what works.

As TEA and school districts wait to see what methodology will be final, another part of the process will be looking for ways to notify and explain the new system to parents and community members.

A great deal of developing this system was based on the intention to provide the public a rating system that was easier to understand and more stable to compare from year to year.

But for some district officials, the challenge might be to avoid panic if the district gets a low grade. The first year of the transition there will also not be much that the public can use to for an apples-to-apples comparison with the current pass/fail model.

For these preliminary grades, however, the commissioner is making sure the districts know this is not their official score, since the system is still in the works.

“I think by sometime in early to mid-March we should have really good clues as to how the legislation is responding to this,” King said. “So before we get a lot of hours in with parents and community trying to go in depth with this, we need to see how the legislation is responding.”

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