The Reality of A-F Hits Home for Schools
An editorial opinion by A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.
This past week the Texas Education Agency took the school accountability system to a new low, releasing a “what if” letter grade tabulation for each school and school district in the state of Texas. This report has sent shock waves across virtually every public school district in the state. The report was a “what if” because the letter grades are not official. It was only released to let all the public school officials, teachers and parents and students know what their school and school district would receive if the official results were released this year. The letter grades are based on the 2015-2016 school report card and other factors. I say other factors because to figure out all the other factors and understand them, you could be eligible to work at mission control in NASA. Yes, it is that complicated. I have looked at the formulas and, trust me, I feel pretty stupid right about now. I’m not going to bore you with the details of how each grade was determined in this article, but I am going to try and make sense of it (or nonsense).
Here is a little background to bring everyone up to speed on what all of this means. To begin with, Texas did not invent the A-F system. The first state to use it was Florida, under Governor Jeb Bush. It is now in at least 15 states. In early 2016 the Texas Legislature under House Bill 2804, established guidelines for a new state education assessment and accountability system. The purpose of the new program was to conform to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that had previously been passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Obama in December of 2015. HB 2804 also established a commission to review the bill and make recommendations before anything became official. This review board was called The Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessment and Accountability. They met in Austin seven times with each meeting dedicated to hearing from “experts” in the field testifying about what the research and practices demonstrate about each phase of the bill’s mandates. At some of these meetings the Commission allowed public testimony. I went to Austin and testified in one of these meetings so I got a first hand look at how it operated. Here is the TEA website where you can read about the Commission and pull up the Commission’s Final Report to the Governor: http://tea.texas.gov/2804Commission.aspx
In the Commission report is the recommendation to approve what had already been written in HB 2804 regarding using an A-F grading format for schools and school districts. Consider the language used in the Commission Draft Report under Long Term Vision, item 6, page 10.
6. Align the state accountability system with ESSA requirements. Align the state and federal accountability systems to ensure that the results are consistent and share common goals. When the federal regulations regarding ESSA are released in fall 2016, Texas will be able to use the guidance provided by the specific federal regulations as it develops the A–F accountability system. An A–F accountability system to identify underperforming schools in Texas is scheduled to be implemented in the 2017–2018 school year (Texas Education Agency, Next Generation Assessment Accountability, 2016, p. 10).
To note the importance of the first sentence is to state the obviously ridiculous. The move to change the accountability system for schools and school districts to an A-F format is a federal requirement. Once again, as I have stated time and time again, Texas is but a mini-federal U.S. Department of Education. This is why we cannot seem to get away from doing what the federal government wants us to do when it comes to education policy. The loss of all sovereignty occurred when each state came under the federal waiver to get out from under impossible mandates of No Child Left Behind. Texas applied for and received their waiver in 2013. Here is the link where you can read the entire waiver request if you so desire. file://localhost/Users/huff_fitness/Downloads/TEA_Final_ESEA_Waiver_091613 (2).pdf
(You may get a warning on this website since it comes from my documents. Don’t worry, it is safe to open).
If you are interested in how we moved from No Child Left Behind into ESSA and some how fell under Common Core, even though the Texas Legislature passed a law saying we would never come under Common Core, it’s all in this waiver application. Please note, College and Career Ready Standards are the Common Core Standards. Also in this application is where schools fell under Priority and Focus categories. The federal Annual Measurable Objectives (updated Adequate Yearly Progress) is also in this waiver request.
Let me now turn your attention to the most important part of this article. Superintendents across the state are decrying the issuance of the A-F ratings. Rightfully so, I might add, they are putting out memorandums and videos that denounce these ratings and point to the unfairness of reducing a school’s overall worth to a letter grade. Yes, it’s true, a school cannot be judged based on the outcomes of a standardized test given once a year. Here, though, is the issue. Where have the superintendents been on the outcry? This has been going on since the early 90’s and with more high stakes involved since 2002 with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Schools cannot be judged as Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, Met Standard, Unacceptable, or Needs Improvement based upon the yearly given standardized test. It is a flawed policy and it increasingly affects schools negatively who have high percentages of low socio-economic students. It discriminates with sanctions and endless shaming of the students, the teachers, the administration, the parents and the community where the school is located. It is unacceptable that this horrid accountability system continues.
Now, with the A-F system the lobbyist controlled congress (both state and federal) implements their latest in a long series of heavy-handed tactics to demonstrate their disdain for the education system. I mention lobbyist because education is an industry that makes billions of dollars every year off the backs of our children, and more specifically, by off the backs of our children in Title One schools. Everyone knows this, everyone discusses this issue; but nothing gets done. Our students are but guinea pigs forced to swallow the latest magic bullet curriculum program that the school district purchased for thousands of dollars. I mention disdain by the legislators because I have been in the committee meetings, and I have testified before both the Texas House and the Texas Senate Education Committees only to be told my time is up and thank you very much. Senator Larry Taylor did allow me more than the customary three minutes to speak, but my recommendations fell on deaf ears, just as every recommendation that came from a public speaker. The only recommendations that were followed were those that came from the invited speakers, many of which came from the corporate sector. The Education Committees in both houses of congress and the State Board of Education in Texas feel as though it is their duty to save public education. The Lt. Governor and Governor feel the same. To them, teachers can’t be trusted to teach the students. Principals can’t be trusted to lead and manage. Superintendents can’t be trusted to organize and implement the best, most trusted method of instruction. No, it is the state and federal governments, the lobbyist, and the corporations that must be in charge of teaching our students. After all, as Senator Taylor said to me when I testified to his committee, before the legislators took control students were graduating that could not read. There was a crisis in the nation. The government had to step in and take control. I told him that students are still graduating that can’t read. We don’t like it, every teacher is working to keep that from happening, but that is what happens in a free and democratic society. A student can choose to fail if they so choose. We don’t like it, but it is always going to be that way in a free and democratic society. We have been under this system of accountability for going on three decades and what do we have? We have a failed system where the controllers have their boot on the throat of every teacher, principal and superintendent and the pressure is increasing with each new phase of the accountability system.
So now we have the A-F system of school accountability. Let me give you some examples of how some school districts did around the state. The grading system of schools is broken down into four domains. There will be a fifth added next year, but for now we will just discuss the four. They are broken down as:
Domain I: Student Achievement (how all the students performed on the STAAR test)
Domain II: Student Progress (evaluating student progress in 10 student subgroup categories, broken down into 7 ethnic groups, Special Education, and English Language Learners, and their progress from the previous year’s results).
Domain III: All tests from all grades results in the economically disadvantaged student population only (These scores are compared with those from the previous year and judged by improvement or regression).
Domain IV: Post-Secondary Readiness (Elementary evaluated on absentee rate. Middle Schools evaluated on absentee rate and dropout rate.
High Schools graded on a number of indicators, including absentee rate, graduation rate, dropout rate, career and tech programs offered, AP and IB courses offered, and a few other indicators).
Of course, this is a simplified version and no mathematical statistical formulas are given to determine the outcome, so keep that in mind as I run down these results. Keep in mind, also, that these results in no way indicate the worth or value of the education the students are receiving in these school districts. Any comparison needs to be made with the understanding that the district with the most challenges have the most difficulty with this very flawed system that needs to be eliminated.
|SCHOOL DISTRICT||DOMAIN I||DOMAIN II||DOMAIN III||DOMAIN IV|
I hope that I have represented each district’s scores accurately. My apologies if there are any errors.
Of course, this list is very brief and only represents a small portion of the school districts in the state. They are, however, all large school districts with the exception of Highland Park. Highland Park was included in this list simply to point out the disparity of the system. This is not a slam against Highland Park. They are a very good school district. They do, however, have zero economically disadvantaged students. At least none show up on the school report card. This is why they did not receive a score in Domain III. Highland Park received a “C” in Domain IV only because they went down in their Post-Secondary Readiness Index from 96 in 2015 to 92 in 2016. The score of 92 in Domain IV is an excellent score, but because Highland Park went down from a score of 96 in 2015 (the target score for Domain IV is 57 for high schools), they were shamed with a grade of “C”. So, the public assumes Highland Park is just average in Domain IV, yet they had a very high score of 92.
Looking at the list provided in this article, I’m sure, makes you scratch your head and wonder how a district received the grade it did in each of the domains. Some of the grades you can understand and others you can’t figure out how the grade could be what it is. Due to the ramifications that go along with a letter grade, and the impressions it makes in the eyes of the public, you can see why the school officials are yelling from the rooftops that this is an unfair system and in no way reflects their districts quality and worth. Yet it has been this way from the beginning of the Accountability System. Those of you who have followed my articles and read my book, The Takeover of Public Education in America: The Agenda to Control Information and Knowledge Through the Accountability System, know that the central theme I keep repeating is the unjust nature and discriminatory practice the accountability system is for the entire nation, not just Texas. But Texas is my state, so I concentrate on Texas, where I live and work.
Superintendents of the great State of Texas, I put this situation in your hands. I think this is personal to you now. Before, the old system of “met standards” or “needs improvement” didn’t quite have the sting of a letter grade. Everyone identifies with a letter grade. The Congress of Texas thinks this will motivate everyone directly involved with student testing outcomes to improve. What Congress doesn’t realize is that school officials and teachers have been doing everything in their power to get the scores up, yet with little effect. This is because no matter what program is brought in, or what guru is provided to help teachers teach better, the same demographic factors are almost impossible to overcome. This, also, has nothing to do with ethnicity. Nothing! The schools success rises or falls with the percentages of students in Eco-Disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and the Mobility Rate for the school and school district. The Mobility Rate indicates the number of students that arrive after school begins and/or leaves before the school year ends.
Superintendents, I call on you to organize. Organize not around TASA. In my opinion, The Texas Association of School Administrators has not served you well. They have kept you in the status quo. You must have an independent voice in order to get the attention of the state legislators. Yes, the federal government wants this A-F system, but they have also said they want states to have more autonomy in determining their accountability systems. Use this as your leverage point. Apart from the parents of the state, whom the legislators have already demonstrated they do not listen to, the superintendents of the state are the only hope for reversing the A-F grading system, and the entire accountability system. The whole system is flawed to its core and needs to be eliminated. Let’s all come together and speak in one voice to eliminate the A-F grading system first, then the entire accountability system.
A. Patrick Huff is the author of “The Takeover of Public Education in America: The Agenda to Control Information and Knowledge Through the Accountability System”, 2015. The book can be found at http://www.aphuff.com. Dr. Huff is a retired middle and high school principal with 34 years in the public education profession. He currently works as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He lives with his wife, Connie, of 35 years in Tomball, Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org