Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why the A-F Rating System will Fail Texas Kids

The A-F grading discussion is moving full steam ahead in the Texas Senate, and it looks like the leaders in the Senate are committed to adopting a flawed accountability system.  What I hope to communicate in this post are some questions that all educators, parents and communities should ask the legislators who we elected to improve schools.  After reading all of the proposed changes, the thought that continues to come to my mind is this.

I just don't get it.

Question 'A'

Why are You Tying Accountability to a Test that You don't Believe In?

Standardized testing has run its course, or at least that's what many legislators touted when running for office.  It is widely believed that standardized testing is flawed, and that there is too much emphasis on one single test.  Lt. Governor, Dan Patrick was quoted in the Dallas Morning News (Click Here) this past October saying,

“I’m getting to the point where I’m losing total confidence in our state testing because we’re getting students with A’s and B’s … who can’t pass the Algebra 1 test, for example.”   

An additional point in the same article was shared by our new governor, Greg Abbott, when he was running for office.   His quote on testing as a valid measure for learning was as follows.

 “I think it’s fair to say the whole process needs to be re-evaluated,” he said. “We may have a broken thermometer, the STAAR test, that is no longer doing a good job of measuring.”  

If this is the prevailing rhetoric in Austin, then I don't understand why you would want an accountability system that labels and furthermore punishes schools for failing to perform on a test (STAAR) that everyone including the top 2 leaders in the state are sick of.

In fact, over 10,000 seniors may not graduate this year because they haven't passed 1 or more STAAR End of Course tests required for graduation.  To fix this problem, Senate Bill 149 (a good thing) is on the floor right now to allow schools to give students multiple ways to demonstrate that they have met the necessary criteria to graduate.  While this bill is a victory for kids as well as schools, the bill is essentially affirming that it is wrong to use a flawed test to base major decisions about a school's performance.

Question 'B'

Are you Leading Texas or Following other States?

With so much at stake and so many people calling for an overhaul of the Texas accountability system, why are you looking to imitate several states who have tried and failed at implementing an A-F school rating system?  There is much evidence that shows that several states have failed at providing clarity about school performance using an A-F rating system.  (If there is a state that has successfully helped all schools improve and more kids graduate using an A-F rating system, please tell me where that state is because I honestly can't find one.)

If you want to know the results that will come from labeling schools on an A-F scale, please see Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oklahoma again, and Florida.  From what I have found, I only see frustration and confusion coming from a system that you say is intended to be less confusing.  The article that concerned me the most was "More Schools Received an F than Last Year".

I know that schools in other states are doing a great job educating kids because I believe schools, teachers and leaders in those states are working hard to educate kids.  In fact, the new Oklahoma state superintendent believes this also, as she has suspended the A-F rating system until 2016 while the "flaws" in the system are being worked out.   After reading the articles, I just don't see how labeling more schools with an 'F' each year is going to build people's confidence in schools.

Next, why are you so committed to over-evaluating all campuses on an A-F system when you haven't even proven that evaluating our districts using the A-F system is effective?  We heard legislators politicize that they disagree with over-testing, bureaucratic redtape and over-regulation by the federal government, yet you are designing a testing and accountability system that exceeds what our federal government is doing.

Our current state testing and accountability system:

  • Has more total indicators to gauge school performance than the federal government,
  • Has 4 Indexes (Indices) that measure one test in four different ways,
  • Ties graduation directly to passing all 5 STAAR EOC tests (unless SB 149 passes),
  • Requires more standardized tests (grades 3-12) to be given ) than the federal government (7 more tests.
The sad truth is this.  An A-F system is nothing more than a flashback to our former accountability system under TAKS (2002-2011) where schools were labeled as Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable and Unacceptable, and these labels were based predominantly on one measure (standardized tests).  This old system was so antiquated and so negatively opposed by virtually everyone in the state that it was done away with.  I just don't see how returning to a failed system from last decade is going to help all schools guarantee learning for all kids in this decade.

Question 'C' 

Can We please have a New Vision for Accountability?

You can weigh yourself as much as you want, but there are a lot of other ways to determine if you are in good health.  Your weight is just one factor. The same is true of gauging the health of schools.  Keeping that in mind, please take a look at the TASA Visioning Document which was created by a group of highly insightful and committed Texas superintendents and education leaders.  I would encourage you to look at Article IV on page 24 which deals exclusively with accountability.  I really think they hit the nail on the head when they defined meaningful accountability in this way.

  • Accountability systems are guided by the fact that to attach any matter highly valued by students, teachers, school leaders, or schools/districts to any single measure such as a standardized test, corrupts the test and the integrity of what it measures as well as the accountability it was intended to provide.

  • Labels for schools and particularly those that use the lowest performing unit as the basis for a punitive label should be avoided. There is a distinction between identifying performance gaps and labeling. Identification of performance gaps enables schools to move forward in designing different instructional strategies or approaches to help students achieve the learning desired.
Can you please get input from leaders of school districts who live to make a difference in the lives of kids?  I am confident that you will get a much better accountability system that will truly tell you and more importantly parents how schools are really performing.

Question 'D'

Do Schools Need More Pressure?

The rhetoric implicates that schools are not improving fast enough; therefore, they need more pressure and shorter timelines to demonstrate improvement on a test that has basically flatlined in performance for the last 3 years.  I don't know what schools you have visited, but I don't know of a school in Texas that has too little pressure placed upon it.  By trying to meet the passing requirements, exceeding the growth measures and competing in their campus comparison groups, Texas schools, leaders, teachers and students are under more pressure to improve than I have ever seen in my career.  I agree that all schools must be committed to guaranteeing learning for all kids.  I just don't get how more pressure to avoid punitive measures will get the job done.

Question 'F'

Are Schools Doing a Good Job?

I, like thousands of Americans, believe we must continue to strive for academic excellence, and I believe that until every student is equipped with an education that successfully prepares them for college and career, we must continue to improve.  I think it is important to point out that Texas has some great things happening and some areas where we must improve.  Here are a few facts that I pulled from TAPR state reports from 2014, the TEA website and ACT website.
  • Texas had the 2nd highest graduation rate in the nation this year at 88%.  It is higher than the national average by 7%.  That was done without an A-F rating system.
  • ACT Participation and Performance rates are the highest in the last 5 years. (see page 7)  All  subgroups have also increased in participation and performance over the last 5 years.  While the growth is small in performance, participation has grown tremendously.
  • 57% of Texas high school graduates enrolled in an IHE (Institution of Higher Education) last year.   
  • 70% of Texas graduates enrolled in an IHE successfully completed the first year of college without remediation.
  • 31% of Texas high school students took and passed college courses as high school students (dual credit) in 2012.  This number is increasing every year due to House Bill 5.  In other words, 1/3 of Texas high school kids earned college credit before they graduated from high school.
  • 22% of Texas students took AP tests in 2012 and half of them earned college credit. (That's even more college credit earned by high school students)
  • College and technical school enrollment has increased steadily over the last 3 years.
While Texas needs to improve in ACT and SAT performance, as well as college enrollment, more students are being prepared for college every year.  Of course, some kids need remediation when they get there, but more kids are getting there, and that's a good thing.  We have room to grow, but we are also growing.

Texas Schools are Improving

I don't know about you, but I think all Texas schools are making improvements.  I'm not basing this solely on test scores because a school's story is told by more factors than what you find on a test score.   A school's story includes what they are doing in the areas of college preparation, career and technical education, fine arts, UIL academics, athletics, and other innovative programs that will never be included in an A-F rating system.  

Are some schools failing?  Yes, and there should be plans for them to respond quickly and efficiently.  Are some schools excelling?  Yes, and there should be a culture where exceptional schools share their successful strategies to help neighboring schools improve.  An A-F rating system that creates winners and losers will do nothing but recreate a culture of competition between campuses instead of uniting districts in the spirit of collaboration and most importantly educating all kids.   Texas is better than that, and if we believe we're in the business of helping all kids improve and succeed, then we should have legislation that helps all schools improve and succeed as well.

Share your thoughts, and if you believe in your school,  share this with a friend.

Better yet, call your senator and representative and tell them that Texas schools and kids deserve something better than an A-F accountability system. 

 Here's a link to their directory


  1. Hey Pal,

    What a great evisceration of a crappy policy.

    North Carolina adopted our own A-F ranking system this year. It's sure to be a complete disaster that pushes people away from poor schools. Interesting statistic: Only ONE school in the Triangle area that earned an A in the ranking system served high percentages of poor students.

    Care to guess the percentage of F schools serving high percentages of poor students?!

    I think what bugs me the most about these systems is that there is NO conversation about how we will invest in schools that are struggling. Shouldn't we aim for something MORE than accountability? What about improvement as a goal?

    Anyway...hope you are well.

  2. Bill,

    Thank you for your thoughts. This obviously isn't a state issue; it's a national issue as every state in the union is jumping on the bandwagon. They obviously don't understand that in order to improve struggling schools, they need to create an accountability system that will cause great teachers to run to them not away from them.

    I truly believe that until educators unite and voice their opposition to bad policies as well as offer meaningful alternatives, public education will continue to be labeled as unproductive.

    We must be that movement.