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Despite Concerns, TEA Moving Forward on A-F School Ratings Plan

Against the recommendation of school leaders and amid skepticism from some lawmakers, the Texas Education Agency will continue working toward a transition to a public school accountability ratings system with grades of A through F.

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The Texas Education Agency will continue with the implementation of public school accountability ratings using A through F grades in 2014 despite mounting criticism from school leaders and some lawmakers.

On Tuesday, when the agency announced an interim pass-fail system to go into effect this year, Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement that agency would continue the shift to the report card-like approach.

The decision will not be final until this fall, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe wrote in an email, adding that the commissioner is "well aware of ongoing debates in the Legislature about the A-F rating system."

Williams has long expressed his support of the A-through-F ratings, whose advocates include business-oriented education reform groups that argue their transparency helps engage parents and communities with their schools by making their performance easier to understand and allow for a deeper review of a school's achievement.

"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 this month at a Senate Education Committee hearing, when he announced the agency's intention to formally adopt the ratings in 2014 during the rollout of the state's new accountability system.

But the plan has been met with skepticism from some lawmakers, including several on the Senate education panel who questioned whether using such simplistic labels unnecessarily stigmatized schools. Then, after Williams' announcement, members of the agency's advisory panels set up to develop new accountability policies revealed that the A-through-F labels were not based on their recommendations. 

"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," said H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of the Alief Independent School District, who sat on one of those panels. He said there was "pretty unanimous opposition" to the A-through-F plan among the committee's 30 members over significant concerns about whether it could promote inaccurate assumptions about school performance.

The agency 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" when it submitted the proposed changes for public comment.

"While the commissioner has received input from a number of legislators, superintendents, and other interested parties for and against the A-F rating system, the decision to move toward A-F in 2014 was his own," wrote Ratcliffe. 

Because the state is rolling out a new standardized testing program, Texas schools did not receive ratings last year under the current system, which has four different ratings — unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary —  based on measures set by the TEA, including the district's performance on standardized tests, dropout rates and financial health. Under Senate Bill 1109, approved by the upper chamber though it still must win passage in the House, lawmakers would suspend those ratings for another year because of probable changes this session to the state's high school graduation and standardized testing requirements. 

With the new system, state officials are attempting to respond to complaints about the state's current approach, which school leaders and other critics say the public has difficulty assigning meaning to, and whose metrics can arbitrarily penalize schools that are otherwise doing well if they slip in a single area. The criteria for the A-through-F ratings will be based on the achievement, progress and post-secondary preparation of students overall as well as the performance of low-income and minority students.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, have both supported the A-through-F plan. It is a part of a legislative package advanced by Texans For Education Reform, whose board members include former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and former Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Other states have also adopted the policy in recent years because of its success in Florida, where former Gov. Jeb Bush, who now runs an organization that pushes for Florida-based education reforms nationally, said the ratings spurred underperforming schools to improvement. 

But critics, including researchers at the National Education Policy Center, have said it is misleading to attribute that improvement to an A-through-F system, saying they have not accounted for other policy changes — or differences in the criteria that schools needed to meet to achieve the ratings.

Though it was not thoroughly discussed on the House floor, language implementing an A-through-F rating system overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5, comprehensive legislation that restructures high school curriculum and reduces the number of required state exams. But it was stripped from the measure when it passed out of the Senate's committee. SB 1408, a stand-alone measure that enacts the ratings from Patrick, awaits consideration on the Senate floor.   

Of course, as Williams told senators during this month's hearing, he does not need the go-ahead from Legislature. But state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, advised the commissioner to continue to get the input of lawmakers as the agency moved forward.

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

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