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TEA Advisory Panels Didn't Recommend A-F School Ratings

Two Texas Education Agency advisory panels opposed a plan to move the state to an A through F school ratings system, a plan that Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced Tuesday.

Texas Education Agency commissioner Michael Williams announces at a press conference that he is stripping all authority from the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees. The move comes in the wake of a cheating scandal that landed the former superintendent in federal prison.

When Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that he had "accepted the recommendation" to move forward an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014, he didn't mean that the recommendation came from the agency's two advisory committees that have met for the past year to develop the new system.

Those two panels — made up of educators, superintendents, members of the business community and legislative staff — actually opposed the A through F plan.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the commissioner misspoke if he gave lawmakers on the Senate's Education Committee the impression that the advice came from the committees.

"That percolated up through other sources. But those committees did not recommend that," she said. "Individual educators weighed in on it but not the formal committees."

Williams said Tuesday that "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."

When the agency submitted the proposed changes for public comment, it also received a strongly negative response to the idea of providing accountability ratings with the grades A through F, including that such a system would be "degrading" and an "anachronism."

H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of Alief Independent School District, sat on the policy advisory committee that has met three times since March 2012 to develop recommendations for the agency. He said that although there was consensus that the new indexing system the A through F ratings would be based on would be "an improvement," there was "pretty unanimous opposition" among the committee's 30 members to the A through F ratings themselves.

"In our opinion that wasn't the best way to create a label to the accountability system to communicate to our community about how our schools were doing," he said, adding that there were significant concerns about whether it could promote inaccurate assumptions about school performance.

One member of the panels did support the A through F system.

Bill Hammond, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business said that he would be "very surprised" if a committee made up of the education establishment would approve such a change because of the ease with which it would reveal low-performing schools to the public.

"It's the most stunningly non-diverse committee I've ever served on," he said, adding that better representation from the business community was needed because it "not only pays for two-thirds of the cost but is also the ultimate consumer" of education.

(The Tribune has contacted additional members of the committees and will update this post with their responses.)

The commissioner has the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, but Williams told senators that he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer their questions. During the hearing, state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, advised Williams to continue to get the input of lawmakers.

"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."

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 measure overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

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 in his testimony before the education committee that the five differentiations of A-F grading allowed for a greater understanding of a school's achievement, including "with hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach students."

"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.

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