The State Wants to Give More Schools F Ratings – To What End?

When TEA takes over

Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin, which has received poor ratings for years and has caused concern about a TEA takeover (photo by Jana Birchum)

As strange as it might sound, parents and school officials are questioning whether the Texas Education Agency – an agency created to support public education – is working with Gov. Greg Abbott to undermine public schools. They suspect TEA is manufacturing evidence to help Abbott claim that Texas' public schools are failing, so he can push vouchers in an upcoming legislative session.

Two recent developments support the suspicion. First, TEA is increasing its intervention in local school districts, notably those here and in Houston. Second, the agency has proposed abrupt changes to the A-F accountability system it uses to rate school districts – changes that will create the perception that schools are struggling when in fact they're improving. This, advocates say, would help TEA take over more school districts. It would also help Abbott make the case for his stymied voucher project – a scheme to allow parents to take money from public schools to spend on private school expenses.

“So many schools that put in the hard work post-pandemic to improve achievement will actually be labeled with a lower grade than last year. It’s a slap in the face to school communities.”   – State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin

Those TEA takeovers have serious consequences. In Houston ISD – the largest school district in Texas – years of poor performance at a single campus allowed the TEA to take over the elected school board, replacing them with a board of managers and new superintendent selected by the agency. This week, news broke that HISD will convert libraries in 28 schools into disciplinary centers, eliminating school librarian positions in the process. This is part of a set of reforms pushed by the TEA's handpicked superintendent, Mike Miles.

Austin Rep. James Talarico, a former teacher, is one of those who wonder if the change to the rating system is a ploy for power. "I don't have any evidence the two are connected," Talarico said, referring to the interventions and the A-F ratings change. "But I'm worried that these are efforts to undermine people's confidence in their public schools and pave the way for private school vouchers."

Manufactured Flunkies

The A-F ratings have been applied to public schools since 2018 and serve as a convenient shorthand for how well they're performing. They're based on three categories – student achievement, school progress, and the effectiveness of education for historically underserved groups. The ratings are extremely important – high ratings stimulate enrollment; D and F ratings stigmatize schools and reduce economic investment in the communities they serve.

The State Wants to Give More Schools F Ratings – To What End?

So school administrators were alarmed when TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced his intention this spring to radically alter the calculation of one of the elements of the ratings – College, Career, and Military Readiness. Morath said he planned to raise CCMR "cut scores" – the raw number of points needed to receive a certain letter score – by 20 points across the board. Under the new calculation, districts across the state are expected to fall at least one letter grade, even if their performance improves from the previous year. For example, Austin, Del Valle, and Pflugerville ISDs, which earned B ratings in their most recent appraisals, will likely fall to C or even D ratings in August.

Talarico said this will create the perception that public schools are failing when in fact they are beginning to recover from the damage done by the COVID pandemic. "I understand why we want to increase the cut scores in some way," he said. "But as a policymaker I would much prefer that the scores be increased gradually and for it to be a transparent process – for them to let us know beforehand when it's going to be raised and by how much."

Morath has claimed that state law compels him to raise the cut scores, and that superintendents prefer him to do it all at once. But there's no evidence for that. After he floated the plan in March, 200 school districts – representing 2.7 million, or half, of the state's students – wrote to Abbott and Morath, asking them to postpone the plan.

"In the midst of a teacher shortage, the last thing school districts need is another false narrative that drives a wedge between schools and the families they serve," the letter read. "No public relations campaign from the TEA will be adequate to combat the misperception that our schools are suddenly worse than they were last year."

School officials also question the fact that Morath wants to retroactively apply the new methodology to last year's high school graduates, even though districts weren't warned about the new standards and, obviously, had no way to help these now-former students meet them. They also point out that a new version of the STARR test will be implemented this year, which could lower student achievement scores and reinforce the argument that public schools are failing.

"It's almost like there's a plan to make our public schools look bad this legislative session for some reason?" Rep. Gina Hinojosa tweeted in March, after she grilled Morath during his appearance before the House Public Education Committee. Two months later, Hinojosa, joined by a bipartisan group of 55 legislators, asked the commissioner to delay implementing the new standards. Morath is expected to announce a final decision within the next few weeks. The new A-F district grades will be revealed, too.

"This drastic and arbitrary change will mean most high schools in my district will actually drop a whole letter grade right before a special session on vouchers," Hinojosa said. "Coincidence? And it's sad – so many schools that put in the hard work post-pandemic to improve achievement will actually be labeled with a lower grade than last year. It's a slap in the face to school communities."

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