On January 5, the Austin American-Statesman published the Texas Education Agency’s A-F grades for Texas school districts and campuses. The law establishing this system called for official A-F grades to come out in 2018, so these are “what if” grades, intended to provide to legislators a preview of what the “real” grading system will look like when grades come out officially. In a statement, the TEA commissioner cautioned that no “inferences about official district or campus performance in the 2015–16 school year should be drawn from these ratings.” That didn’t keep public school critics from immediately proclaiming that the A-F grades “transparently and comprehensively represent the performance of districts and campuses statewide.” No surprise there; A-F is seen by many as a tool designed specifically to give anti-public education forces ammunition to aim at the public school system.
In releasing the “work-in-progress” A-F grades to the public (as they were obligated to do), TEA officials ensured that these unofficial scores will become the de facto rating system for Texas schools for the remainder of the year, even though an actual rating system is already in place. This is despite the Commissioner stating clearly and repeatedly that the grade report “is very much a work-in-progress,” that the bases and assumptions behind the grades may change, and that the TEA didn’t take into account local community ratings of districts (statute requires that this local stakeholder input be included as 10% of schools’ final A-F grades). We now have a confusing situation in which the TEA homepage notes in a headline article that 94% of Texas school districts “Met Standard” while public school critics giddily point to another article on the same homepage announcing the release of A-F grades that often label formerly successful schools as sudden failures. In fact, several high-performing schools around the state received D’s and F’s. The Dallas Morning News listed 11 local school districts that received F’s but that were only recently considered as having “Met Standard.” “That’s amazing when you consider that they all met the standard two weeks ago and the scores, the data, haven’t changed,” Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland said.
School district officials have called the new A-F system “a big mistake,” “NOT an accurate reflection of quality education,” and “an unfair game,” and have noted that a similar A-F system was rescinded in Virginia after failing spectacularly, and that, since an A-F rollout in Oklahoma, student performance has declined significantly--despite the fact that A-F systems are sold to legislators as a means to improve student performance by holding districts accountable.
It is difficult not to conclude that this system is for the most part arbitrary and capricious. In one respect it is very reliable, as it actually very consistently punishes those Texas schools that serve the most economically- and socially-challenged families and students. District A-F grades appear to align exceptionally closely with the percentage of economically-disadvantaged students on school district rosters, a factor that is obviously outside the ability of schools to affect.
As a means of assessing the impact of non-school factors on districts’ A-F grades, I sorted every school district in the state by the percentage of their student bodies made up of economically disadvantaged students, and then I listed their A-F grades out to the side. I took the ten districts with the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students that received grades in all four categories and compared them to the ten districts with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Here are the results:
On the other hand:
As you can see, there is a strong and verifiable correlation between districts’ A-F grades and the prevalence of poverty among their students. Meanwhile, there is no verifiable correlation between districts’ A-F grades and the quality of their teachers, which is supposed to be the purpose behind A-F grades even existing. They are supposed communicate to the public which schools are better, not which schools are poorer. We don’t need a measure that communicates which schools have the greatest concentrations of poor kids—we already have that measure (the economically disadvantaged numbers). The A-F system exists to differentiate good schools from bad, not poor schools from rich, and it can’t do it! Major fail.
That latter assertion—that A-F can tell us which schools are better and which schools are worse—was never really anything more than a blind assumption built on ideology and political posturing, rather than on science. This A-F system, despite what the anti-public education lobby will say, is not in the least transparent, not in the least fair, not in the least accurate, and does not serve the need of Texas parents and taxpayers to be informed about the quality of teachers and schools. In fact, if anything, it misinforms them. It amounts to fake news. These are fake grades, non-representative of what they purport to reflect. If your passing school in Texas is suddenly failing today, it’s probably because it educates the wrong kinds of kids: poor ones. The A-F system is carefully-crafted disinformation likely to adversely effect public support for public education.
If I had time, I would do a similar bit of sorting of districts by residential home values, ratios of students served in special education, ratios of students with limited English, ratios of at-risk students, average teacher salary levels, and school finance revenue levels (because, in case you don’t know, Texas schools are funded at wildly different levels). I predict that each of those exercises would result in a strong correlation with these A-F grades (that, again, purportedly reflect teaching quality and supposedly do NOT merely reflect non-school factors outside the control of the educators being smeared by these grades). I challenge any statisticians worth their salt to examine this system in an independent review and let Texas education stakeholders know what these grades really show.
The TEA Commissioner had to release these grades by law, so I don’t blame him for releasing the report. However, he badly let down local teachers and administrators by over-promising transparency in the lead-up to A-F and under-delivering with its rollout. In a meeting of school leaders from the Dallas-Fort Worth area in December, the Commissioner confidently assured school leaders that, out of a sense of fairness, since schools in Texas are funded so inequitably, he would ensure that anywhere the TEA published A-F ratings for schools, the Agency would also publish information related to each school’s relative funding level—so that users of the information would have the full picture, as it is unfair to expect schools with fewer resources to outperform schools that are funded more generously. Having promised that, however, the TEA somehow failed to ensure that the information published by the Austin newspaper included the funding-levels context. As of this writing, I haven’t seen the promised relative funding levels information published anywhere by TEA. As many of us feared, the assurance that appropriate context would be included alongside the published results of the A-F accountability system appears to have been little more than a bait-and-switch. As with every school accountability system in the history of the state of Texas, this system purports to communicate to Texas parents that it represents a fair ranking of schools that are competing on an even playing field. In reality once again, by funding some schools at double and triple the level of others and keeping hush-hush about which schools are flush and which are kept on a shoestring budget, Texas is picking winners and losers and concealing the fact in school accountability system after school accountability system. This A-F system, like all the others, occludes more than it reveals.
In the end, A-F appears to exist primarily as a political tool, designed not to inform but to misinform parents and taxpayers across Texas. The A-F rating system has not been independently assessed for validity. No third party has done an in-depth analysis to establish whether A-F grades for schools tend to significantly correlate with factors outside of schools’ control, such as poverty levels of students, discrepant funding levels, and the like. Until it is established that the system accurately reflects educational quality more than it reflects social realities that schools operate within and cannot control, the system should be considered incapable of serving its stated purpose. No educational quality conclusions should be drawn absent this independent validation.
One last sidebar:
Ironically, on the same day that the TEA released grades for local campuses, it received its own A-F grade from Education Week’s “Quality Counts” report on the education systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Texas Education Agency received an overall grade of C- on the national report and wasn’t happy. TEA immediately dismissed the validity of the report, stating that it is “difficult to effectively evaluate the state’s performance from a national report where no state made the highest grade, no state made the lowest grade, and the majority of states were all lumped into the same grade category."
On the chart below (from www.edweek.org/media/qualitycounts2016_release.pdf), you will see that on the “Quality Counts” ranking, Texas ranked 45th in the nation in school finance. In other words, Texas schools are low-funded compared to other states. However, on the achievement of students, Texas was ranked 24th. To this educator, that means Texas teachers are picking up the slack that lawmakers are leaving. Additionally, on a third measure called “Chance of Success”—which includes circumstances faced by students including family income, parent education, parent employment, steady employment, etc.—Texas ranked 42nd. So, despite long odds and little meaningful help from policymakers, Texas teachers are doing an outstanding job overcoming obstacles placed in front of them and helping our students to learn.
Despite the systemic obstacles like inadequate school funding and insufficient outside-of-school supports available to Texas children, the TEA nonetheless released this grading report labeling 30% or so of Texas schools—as demanded by the bell curve they built the system on—as “D” and “F” schools. Perhaps most incredible of all is the fact that these grades are based almost exclusively on STAAR standardized test results, an exam fraught with problems, about which the Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick once said “we don’t trust this test.”
Despite misgivings about the quality and ability of the test to reflect student learning, and despite the TEA’s own tepid reaction to its A-F grade from Education Week, and despite the prior existence of a school accountability system proclaiming 94% of Texas schools to be satisfactory performers, and despite the fact that the A-F system reflects poverty better than it reflects teaching quality, ultimately, when it comes to A-F grades, the Texas Education Agency apparently believes it is better to give than to receive.