Texas School Districts and State Engage in Court Battle, Causing Delay in School Ratings

Approximately six years ago, the Kingsville Independent School District was among just nine public school districts in the state that received a failing grade under the new A-F accountability system introduced by the state (source).

This low rating had far-reaching consequences beyond just the district. According to Superintendent Cissy Reynolds-Perez, it caused Kleberg County, where Kingsville ISD is located, to miss out on a partnership opportunity with the U.S. Navy that could have stimulated regional growth.

Reynolds-Perez emphasized the significant impact of these letter grades, stating that they are taken very seriously due to their high stakes. She explained that the grades not only affect the growth and improvement of students but also have the potential to impact the entire community.

Due to their concerns, Reynolds-Perez and other Texas school leaders objected to the state’s proposed new rules for achieving a good rating. The proposed changes required schools to demonstrate a significantly higher number of high school students pursuing careers after graduation.

Last year, Kingsville ISD and 120 other school districts in Texas filed a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to stop the implementation of the new rules. A Travis County judge ruled that the state’s changes were unlawful and would harm districts across the state (source).

The TEA appealed the decision, leading to a postponed trial that was supposed to take place next month. As a result, the release of the ratings, which provides valuable information to families and educators about school performance, will be delayed until the resolution of the case.

The TEA expressed its disappointment with the ruling, claiming that it disregards the laws of the state and prevents the issuance of A-F performance information that could potentially benefit millions of parents and educators in improving student outcomes (“source“).

Accountability for academic performance among Texas students has been a contentious issue with far-reaching implications for the state’s public education system and economy.

According to a recent report from the George W. Bush Institute and Texas 2036, 70% of jobs in Texas will require a post-secondary degree by 2036. However, data tracking eighth-grade cohorts in Texas reveals that only 22% of students obtain such credentials within six years of high school graduation (source).

While school leaders agree with the goal of improving post-secondary readiness, they argue that the state’s proposed changes are too abrupt and could potentially lead to failure, creating an inaccurate narrative about their work.

Receiving a poor grade can have significant ramifications for schools. An “F” rating may cause parents to withdraw their children from the district, resulting in reduced state funding based on student attendance. Furthermore, school districts with a consistent record of failing grades run the risk of a state takeover, as witnessed in the Houston Independent School District (source).

Accountability in Texas

Since 1993, the Texas Legislature has mandated a system to evaluate public schools’ academic performance (source).

Mary Lynn Pruneda, senior policy advisor for Texas 2036, emphasized that accountability drives transparency necessary for academic improvement. Pruneda expressed concern for the students, stating that after the pandemic, only about half of them are performing at grade level, and a significant number graduate without adequate preparation for college or a career.

Prior to the introduction of the A-F system in 2017, schools in Texas were rated with one of three grades: “met standard,” “met alternative standard,” or “improvement required.”

Under the current A-F system, districts and campuses are assigned letter grades ranging from A to F based on various factors such as student performance on standardized tests, academic growth, graduation rates, and efforts to prepare students for careers after high school. The scores are used by parents and community members to assess school and district performance.

The TEA asserts that the 2017 law mandating the new rating system also required continuous improvement and increasing rigor in grading schools.

The law specifies that the TEA commissioner must establish and modify standards to enhance student performance continuously. The goal is for Texas to be a national leader in preparing students for post-secondary success.

One particular change proposed by the TEA sparked objection from school officials. The current system awards high schools an A grade if 60% of seniors pursue college, a non-college career, or military service. However, the revised rating system, announced in January, raised this benchmark to 88% for earning an A grade.

Reynolds-Perez expressed concerns about the proposed changes, stating that they would have resulted in significantly lower ratings for many high schools and created a false narrative about their overall performance. She believes that the career readiness requirements should have been gradually increased, or alternatively, a more holistic approach to the entire system should have been adopted.

During a Texas House committee meeting, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa suggested alternative methods to improve post-secondary success without risking schools’ ratings. She argued that the law does not require raising the bar for schools as they recover from the pandemic (“source“).

Other criticisms

Schools have voiced additional criticisms of the accountability system, including the excessive emphasis on standardized testing as the primary measure of a child’s ability.

Reynolds-Perez explained that evaluating a child’s abilities based on a single test does not provide a comprehensive assessment of their potential.

Furthermore, school leaders argue that the system tends to be punitive towards districts that serve low-income families. Many campuses in poorer communities received a “Not Rated” label in 2022 due to the pandemic, even though a majority of them would have received a D or F based on their performance under the current rules.

The TEA disagrees with the notion that the system itself causes poorer schools to fare worse. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath acknowledged the challenges faced by high-poverty schools but emphasized that poverty is not an insurmountable obstacle (source).

Reynold-Perez hopes that the lawsuit will result in a more gradual increase in career readiness requirements or a comprehensive reform of the accountability system. She believes that while schools should be held accountable, any changes should be implemented lawfully and fairly.

The resolution of the lawsuit and the future of how Texas schools are graded is expected to unfold later in the spring or summer. Until then, families will have to wait to receive information about their schools’ performance from the previous year.

Jonathan Feinstein, director of The Education Trust in Texas, expressed concern about the lack of accountability ratings, arguing that it leaves school system leaders, community members, and families without a vital tool to understand school performance and advocate for necessary programs and resources dedicated to disadvantaged students (source).

Disclosure: The George W. Bush Institute, Texas 2036, and Education Trust are financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. Financial supporters do not influence the Tribune’s journalism.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/16/texas-accountability-ratings-tea-school-districts-lawsuit/.

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