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A-F grading scale draws criticism from area educators

By Bridget Ortigo
Jan. 8, 2017 at 4 a.m.

Marshall High School senior Cristal Monzon, 18, studies during speech class in 2016.

East Texas school leaders said they were not impressed with the state's new school performance rating system for districts and campuses, based on preliminary ratings released to the public on Friday.

Texas legislators said Friday the preliminary ratings are just a trial run of the new A-F ratings system that is set to roll out in the 2017-18 school year.

State legislators said changes to the new system are sure to come during the 85th legislative session that begins on Tuesday in Austin.

The new A-F school rating system was passed in House Bill 2804 by legislators during the last session. Lawmakers told the TEA they wanted a trial run of the ratings for each Texas school district and campus released by Jan. 1 so they could make any adjustments needed before the system is fully implemented next school year.

The new rating system, which replaces the "met standard" or "improvement required" rating system, assigns letter grades A, B, C, D or F to districts and campuses based on four criteria or "domain" areas: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and post-secondary readiness.

School leaders on Friday said the new system does not give an accurate account of what is actually going on in schools and is largely based on the results of a one day assessment, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test.

School chiefs also questioned the timing of the release of the "trial run" ratings, right before the next legislative session begins on Tuesday, saying it's just a way to cast a negative light on public schools to further the proposed voucher system in Texas.

The voucher system is something legislators and education officials have spent the past decade debating. The system would allow students vouchers, partially or completely, subsidized through state funding to allow students to attend private schools rather than a "failing" or "poor performing" public school. The voucher system is also often referred to as "school choice."

Area outlook

Public school leaders argue the voucher system, if approved, would leave already struggling public schools vying for state funding that would then be split with vouchers, thus making it even harder for public schools to perform.

"I do think this is a ploy to try to get vouchers pushed through this legislative session," Waskom ISD Superintendent Jimmy Cox said Friday referring to the roll out of the new A-F rating system. "The money for vouchers has to come from somewhere and that would just take away from public schools who are already struggling with reduced state funding."

Cox said he also didn't support the new A-F rating system because he questions the integrity of the data that is used to formulate the rating.

"Our ratings aren't very good and we're not real surprised by that," Cox said. "As the system is designed, districts with a high population of low socioeconomic students will never receive a high rating. I am definitely in agreement that we need accountability but we need to make sure that the data used for any rating system is accurate and then make sure that the data is weighted properly."

Cox said as it is now, the A-F rating system and the current "met standard" rating system are both heavily based on STAAR test results.

"Our schools and students are more than one test given on one day," Cox said. "Right now, the rating system is about 70 to 80 percent based on STAAR scores. That one test does not give an accurate picture of what is going on in public schools everyday throughout the school year."

State Rep. Chris Paddie said he agreed.

"I did vote for the omnibus bill of HB 2804, but as with many of these bills, there were a lot of other things packed in there," Paddie said. "There was actually an amendment to HB 2804 put on the floor last session to take out the A-F rating system from the bill before it was passed and I supported that amendment. It was a close vote and the amendment failed 69 to 75."

Paddie said he believes accountability in public schools is needed but agreed the rating system could use some "tweaks," saying the system is a "work in progress."

"The A-F rating system was initially a parent driven idea. Every person who has attended public school in the past few decades can recognize what an A, B, C, D or F score is and the thought was this would be a system the public would better be able to understand rather than 'met standard' or 'improvement required.' I have talked with several area superintendents recently about the rating system and I have urged them to work with us and give us ideas on how we can make tweaks to make the system more accurate," Paddie said.

"I have no doubt there will be changes made to the A-F rating system this legislative session and they are needed but the system is not going anywhere, so the focus needs to be on how to make this system better rather than trying to get rid of it entirely. We need to figure out what data should be used and how it should be weighted so that we present a more accurate and fair picture of what is going on in our public schools. I don't think there is any superintendent I've spoken with who disagrees with the need for an accountability system - we just need to focus on specific tweaks that we can nail down in this session to make the system more accurate and fair."

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said Friday that the current rating system is the official marker for now.

"The ratings in this report are for informational purposes to meet a legislative requirement and represent work-in-progress models that are likely to change before A–F ratings become effective in August 2018," Morath said. "No inferences about official district or campus performance in the 2015–16 school year should be drawn from these ratings, and these ratings should not be considered predictors of future district or campus performance ratings."

Area scores

Marshall ISD rated the worst out of East Texas districts on Friday with 21 total "F" preliminary ratings for its campuses and district.

As a district, Marshall ISD received "F" ratings in both student achievement and student progress. The district received a "D" in closing performance gaps and a "C" in post-secondary readiness.

The majority of the district's elementary campuses received "F" ratings in student achievement and student progress with the exception of South Marshall STEM Academy which received the district's only "A" ratings in student achievement, closing performance gaps and post-secondary readiness.

Marshall ISD Superintendent Jerry Gibson said it's not surprising the district received the lowest ratings in Harrison, Marion and Gregg counties.

"Changes in personnel in the curriculum department over the past few years have brought many philosophical changes in how to best teach students," Gibson wrote in a recent letter to the News Messenger in advance of the ratings' public release. "In fact, over the past six years, six different philosophies have been implemented, which has led to confusion and instability. In many instances, a quick fix to falling test scores has been implemented. The truth of the matter is there are no quick fixes. Current administration has led campuses to a back to the basics approach this school year. Campuses are focusing on four fundamental practices that include administrators being in the classrooms a minimum of 20 times a week to monitor instruction."

Gibson also said the district currently enrolls a high population of low socioeconomic students.

"The most recent TAPR (Texas Academic Performance Report) shows the poverty level in Marshall ISD has risen to over 75 percent and the current demographics are now showing that for the first time, over 30 percent of the students of Marshall are Hispanic, and of those students, over 20 percent are in a bilingual program," Gibson wrote. "Marshall ISD is making a greater awareness of the students who come from poverty and finding effective ways to build relationships and teach those students. An administrative position is being created to effectively bridge the gap for our high poverty student population."

Neighboring Gregg County school district Longview ISD, which has a higher total student population than Marshall ISD but a similar ratio of low socioeconomic students received a "C" rating in student achievement as a district, an "A" in student progress, a "B" in closing performance gaps and a "D" in post secondary readiness. The district received two total "F" ratings, both in the area of student achievement at Ware and Bramlette Elementary Schools.

At Hallsville ISD, the district rated "B" in student achievement, "B" in student progress, "C" in closing performance gaps and "C" in post-secondary readiness. The district did not receive any "F" ratings at its campuses.

"Hallsville ISD does not embrace a rating or ranking of our schools based on a state test administered on one specific date," Collum said in response to the ratings. "Our focus is to provide a quality education that far exceeds the parameters of this state's accountability design. Our schools are so much more than one test on one day. While at least 16 other states have enacted similar letter grade rating systems, there is no definitive research that suggests these ratings have improved student or school performance."

At Jefferson ISD, the district rated a total "D" rating for student achievement, a "F" rating for student progress, a "D" for closing performance gaps and a "B" for post-secondary readiness. Jefferson Elementary School also rated two "F" ratings in both student progress and post-secondary readiness.

Jefferson ISD Superintendent Rob Barnwell said in a statement that the district and its trustees will be considering adopting a resolution for the state legislature to repeal the new A-F rating system at the district's Tuesday board meeting. Other area schools have also adopted similar resolutions in the past two months.

"The formulas that are planned to be used in this new system are flawed and should be discarded," Barnwell said. "I understand that this is a 'work in progress' for this new system, and certainly most of its components will be amended and/or omitted before anything like this becomes official. But my fear is that community folks, parents, teachers, school board members, and the media won't understand that fact, and assumptions will be made that our students or schools are not doing well, which is simply not true."

Read Marshall ISD Trustee Chase Palmer's letter: Concern for Texas Public Schools

Waskom ISD rated a "D" in student achievement, a "F" in student progress, a "F" in closing performance gaps and a "B" in post-secondary readiness.

"We are a little skeptical about what goes into these scores that make up the ratings," Cox said Friday. "In the future, we will be scrutinizing every score for every student to make sure that the information included in the formulation of the rating is accurate."

Cox said in the spring 2016 STAAR, several errors were found and difficulties arose with the state's testing vendor, through no fault of the school districts.

"It was horrible," Cox said of the spring assessments. "It was a nightmare, and that's what these trial run preliminary ratings right now are based on - those spring 2016 test scores that the state had so much trouble with."

Elysian Fields ISD rated a "B" in student achievement, a "C" in student progress, a "B" in closing performance gaps and a "C" in post-secondary readiness.

The district's individual campuses did not receive any "F" ratings in any areas.

Paddie admitted the data that goes into the ratings system is "complicated," even for legislators and educators, much less for parents and the public who don't directly deal with the data that formulates the ratings.

Case in point, Karnack ISD, which has one campus rated differently as a district in the same areas than its lone campus in the same area.

As a district, Karnack ISD, rated a "C" in student achievement, a "C" in student progress, an "A" in closing performance gaps and a "C" in post-secondary readiness - but at the district's only campus, George Washington Carver Elementary, students rated considerably lower than their district totals, rating a "D" in student achievement, a "D" in student progress, a "B" in closing performance gaps and a "C" in post-secondary readiness.

Paddie also pointed out that he believes the data that goes into the fourth criterion or "domain" are for the ratings, which is post-secondary readiness or college readiness, doesn't present a fair playing field for all districts.

"You have larger districts that have more resources and are able to provide more course offerings like CTE programs and certifications, AP classes or dual credit classes than some of the smaller or more rural districts," Paddie said. "Those smaller districts should not be penalized for not having the same resources to provide the same offerings."

At Harleton ISD, the district as a whole rated a "C" in student achievement, a "F" in student progress, a "B" in closing performance gaps and a "D" in post-secondary readiness.

The district's lone "A" rating came in student progress at the high school campus while the junior high school campus rated a "F" in the same area.

"Most school districts in our area serve a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students," Harleton ISD Superintendent Craig Coleman recently posted on his blog in response to the ratings' release.

"These students encounter educational obstacles on a daily basis - including lack of food and other basic needs that make it difficult for parents and students to prioritize education. Quantities of research and even common sense tell us that educating children of poverty and students with English Language barriers is more difficult and more time consuming than educating affluent students. Poverty and English language competency are such dependable predictors of student failure that we can state assuredly, before the A-F system is implemented, that the more affluent districts will received the highest ratings on this system."

At Texas Early College High School, the Marshall campus of the Panola Charter School System, the school rated a "C" in student achievement, a "D" in student progress, a "F" in closing performance gaps and an "A" in post-secondary readiness.

Area scores

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