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Letter Grades For Texas School Districts Released Wednesday

School lockers in a charter school hallway in November 2017.
File Photo |Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

When the Texas Education Agency releases its 2018 academic performance ratings Wednesday, school districts will receive a letter grade instead of a pass or fail.

Many school leaders oppose the new grading system, saying the ratings formula paints an incomplete — and at times unfair — picture of a school, even after changes to the way TEA calculates ratings.

Politicians and advocates who support the A through F system, however, have said it will increase accountability and be more easily understood by parents and students.

“Right now we have a system where there’s one of two labels and 96 percent of schools have a met standard rating,” said Molly Weiner, director of policy at Texas Aspires, an advocacy group in favor of giving parents a choice of schools. “When 96 percent of schools have the same rating, we don’t think that that is a meaningful differentiator for anyone to, kind of, talk about not only what is going really well, but what areas need improvement on.”

When TEA releasedpreliminary letter grades based on data from 2016, most of the districts that received Ds and Fs in the student achievement category had a high rate of student poverty.

School boards, teacher associations and administrators condemned the findings, andcalled on the state Legislature to eliminate the letter grades. Instead, lawmakersmodified how the ratings would be calculated.

WATCH | Common questions about A-F accountability


However, many school leaders, including members of the Texas Association of School Administrators,continue to oppose the A through F system because of it's primarily based on standardized tests.

“Almost certainly, schools with low letter grades will serve large populations of economically disadvantaged students,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. “I think that you’re stigmatizing a neighborhood. I think that’s embarrassing. I think that’s an ethical issue that, as a state, we shouldn’t accept.”

His districtreceived Bs and Cs in preliminary ratings, but Woods said his opposition to the letter grade system isn’t about Northside.

“What’s wrong is wrong. We shouldn’t just evaluate based on how well we look. I just fundamentally believe that the system itself is flawed in a number of ways,” he said, adding that schools should be judged based on a wider array of criteria, such as attendance, discipline and fine arts. “Schools are just more complex organizations than what the state chooses to measure on the tests that it gives students.”

Under TEA’s old accountability formula, schools could earn up to a third of its points based on its ability to help students catch up to grade level if they start out behind — a measure commonly known as “school progress.”

Under the new formula, school progress can count for more than two-thirds of a school’s rating. The school also has the option of being rated based on how it compares to schools with similar characteristics, such as poverty rates.

Weiner said those options remove concerns that high-poverty schools will be at a disadvantage.

“If your students are growing — even if they started out three grade levels behind and they end up only one grade level behind — you’re getting credit for all that growth in a way you never have before in a Texas accountability system,” Weiner said.

But Woods said he thinks the letter grades will still correlate with the economic status of the families in the school.

“I think there’s very clearly a movement in our state, and a larger movement in our country, to privatize what has been called traditionally public schools. And I think that part of the motivation behind an A through F grading or weighting system … is about finding a way to make sure that at least some schools don’t make the mark because it helps the narrative that somehow public schools aren’t serving children well,” Woods said.

San Antonio ISD superintendent Pedro Martinez sees the letter grade system more favorably.

“I actually think grades are actually going to help us, because what I believe is going to happen is families will see that you can have a high-poverty campus, or a campus that has a very diverse set of children, and they’re doing amazing things in the classroom,” said Martinez, who has formed several partnerships with charter schools.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.