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Senators Share Concerns About A-F Grades for Schools

During a Senate Education Committee hearing Thursday, lawmakers questioned whether A-through-F ratings for schools would provide a clear picture of a school's performance.

A reading assistant reads on the classroom floor with a small group of fourth graders at Wanke Elementary School in San An...

Several lawmakers expressed skepticism Thursday that a plan to apply A-through-F grades to public schools — the first item on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's recently named education agenda — would clearly reflect a school’s performance.

Senate Bill 6, carried by Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would change the state's current system of rating schools as "met standard" or "needs improvement" to A-through-F grades. 

Supporters of the measure, which include business-oriented education reform groups, point to similar efforts improving the quality of public schools in other states. The A-through-F system makes schools' performance easier to understand, they argue, and helps more parents become involved in their children's education and allow the state to target failing schools effectively. 

But as Taylor's panel took up the measure Thursday, lawmakers questioned whether academic progress could be attributed to A-through-F ratings rather than other factors like increased funding.

"Labeling is one thing, but making sure that the resources are there in order to get the gains is another," said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. "If the votes are here to change the label, then are the votes going to be here to put the resources in the schools to make certain they are able to move up?" 

Lawmakers also raised concerns about whether such simplistic labels would unnecessarily stigmatize schools, making improvement more difficult. 

"Redlining a community makes it even worse to make an economic recovery," said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who added that she was "very troubled" by the plan.

This is not the first time attempt to switch to an A-through-F rating system. During the 2013 legislative session, an A-through-F measure passed only when the bill’s authors agreed that the grades would apply only at the district level — not the campus level as Taylor is proposing — and to delay its implementation until the 2016-17 school year. Individual campuses will be designated "unacceptable," "acceptable," "recognized," or "exemplary" next year. 

On Thursday, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, challenged the notion that A-through-F grades would be easier to understand than the system the state is set to roll out.

"What do D and F mean? Could they be construed to be unacceptable?" he asked. "And C means unacceptable also?"

Despite those doubts, the bill is likely to have the votes to be passed out of the committee, as West acknowledged during the hearing. But the rocky reception could indicate the roadblocks it may face further along in the legislative process. 

The A-through-F rating system is a measure championed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was formed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after he left office to promote reforms enacted in the state during his tenure. The foundation's vice president of policy, John Bailey, was among those who testified Thursday in favor of Taylor's bill.

The plan also has the support of the Houston-based research and advocacy group Children at Risk, whose CEO, Bob Sanborn, told senators it would be a "wake-up call" for parents. 

"They will be alarmed enough to say, I’m going to become involved," he said.

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