TEA Chief: Texas Moving to A-F Grades for Schools

Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams answers a question at TribLive on Jan. 10, 2013.
Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams answers a question at TribLive on Jan. 10, 2013.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

"With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction," he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, who include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

"It's a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too," Williams said.

Though the plan had already been proposed in bills in both chambers, state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, advised Williams to make an effort to get lawmakers' input on decision.

"It's always better to consult with the Legislature before you make a change," Duncan said. "It's been my experience around here that investment and buy-in are very important for things to work."

Duncan said that he had found accountability ratings tend “to push us toward the wrong goal instead of improvement." He asked the commissioner how the new plan would "emphasize more on improvement and teaching kids what they need to know" than the existing system.

Currently, Texas schools can receive four different ratings — unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary — that are based on measures set by the TEA, including the district's performance on standardized tests, dropout rates and financial health. Critics have said it is difficult for the public to assign meaning to the labels, and that the metrics behind it can arbitrarily penalize schools that are otherwise doing well if they slip in a single area.

Williams said that the five differentiations of A-F grading allowed for a greater understanding of a school's achievement "with hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach students." The agency would develop the system in a way, he said, that would "give a fair break to those schools" that are predominately populated with challenging demographics.

Other senators also joined Duncan in questioning how the new system would avoid what he called a "tendency to stigmatize" certain regions and students.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked specifically about "urban communities," which he said could be particularly vulnerable to being labeled with a low grade that could harm efforts at economic progress. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, also wanted to know what input the TEA received from South Texas school boards and superintendents in developing the new system.

Williams said that he would work with the agency to get the senators the information they needed. He added that the fate of legislation like Senate Bill 3 and HB 5, which significantly restructure high school graduation requirements, would also affect the plan's details.

In the meantime, he urged the panel to "wait for this process to play itself out so that we can appreciate whether it needs to be tweaked or not."

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