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Texas Senate approves bill tweaking A-F school grades

The Texas Senate approved a bill that would tweak a plan to grade school districts — well past a midnight deadline for passing legislation.

State Sen. Larry Taylor walks across the Senate floor on May 24, 2017.

The Texas Senate early Thursday approved a bill that would tweak a plan to grade school districts — two and a half hours after a midnight legislative deadline.

The Senate voted 29-2 to pass its version of House Bill 22, which would make changes to a plan for grading school districts on an A-F scale. Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill's sponsor, made some compromises to appease educators but did not include several of the provisions they want the most — including a delay to the start date of the rating system from 2018 to 2019 and a limit on how much of their grades depend on standardized tests.

The Senate was supposed to vote on bills before midnight Wednesday, but members suspended the rules and continued voting on legislation well after the deadline. The legislative session comes to a close Monday. The bill now goes back to the House, which will decide whether to approve the Senate's changes.

“There were some flaws in the earlier rendition. We tried to fix that,” Taylor said early Thursday morning. “The point of this is to have a true measure for our teachers, our districts, for our parents, and for the community to know how their schools are doing.”

Educators have said the Senate's version of the bill, without the provisions they want, would result in districts being graded primarily on students' standardized test scores instead of on measures such as rigor and diversity of offered courses.

The Legislature first approved an A-F graded system for rating school districts and schools in 2015. Supporters said a graded system would be easier for parents and community members to see how their schools were progressing, instead of the existing pass/fail system. The A-F system is slated to start in 2018.

After spending the past few months trying to get legislators to make the planned school accountability system more palatable to superintendents, Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers said he preferred the House version.

"I am not willing to sacrifice good policy for what's mediocre policy," he said Tuesday.

Chambers played a key role in crafting the House's original version of HB 22, which would limit standardized testing to 50 percent of a school's or district's grade, allow districts to use locally selected exams and delay the start of the rating system until 2019. It also would give districts and schools grades in three separate categories — student achievement, student progress and school climate — and not one summative grade.

Taylor stripped the bill of all those changes, against the wishes of many Texas educators. His version would give Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath leeway to include other factors to judge whether schools are doing a good job educating students.

The Senate approved a version Thursday that compromised on some provisions schools want: a requirement that Morath check with school community members before changing standards and the inclusion of teacher quality as a measure in a school's rating. Taylor changed the bill to include a fourth category, measuring how well schools are doing in closing achievement gaps between students of different racial and socioeconomic groups.

Taylor also attached a few provisions from dead bills, including SB 2144, which would create a commission studying school finance.

Many educators want the A-F system to be thrown out completely. The Texas Association of School Administrators rallied its members to stage a major campaign against it this winter, after districts received preliminary grades that showed how the system would work.

The association would have been satisfied with the changes in the House's original version of HB 22. "We supported the original HB 22 by [House Public Education] Chairman [Dan] Huberty because it delayed implementation of Texas' A-F system until 2019, required 'what if' performance ratings to be issued in 2017 and 2018, and eliminated the overall A-F grade for schools and districts," said spokeswoman Amy Francisco. The version passed out of the Senate Thursday morning does not include those provisions.

Some districts are OK with letting the Senate's version pass. "We're not afraid of A-F. We just want a system that's fair," said Seth Rau, legislative coordinator at San Antonio ISD. The House and Senate versions of HB 22 clean up smaller flaws in the proposed system, including the way it factored measures like chronic absenteeism into schools' grades.

San Antonio ISD administrators would be happy with a version worked out between both chambers in a conference committee, Rau said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick originally said he would compromise with the House on part of the original HB 22 — the delay until 2019 — in exchange for the passage of one of his priorities: "private school choice." But Taylor on Wednesday rejected the House's offer to negotiate on the bill that housed the provision. He called the whole deal "dead."

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Educators and advocates found it hard to concur on the Senate's version of House Bill 22, either finding it too restrictive and tied to standardized tests or not quite strict enough.
  • The Texas House passed a bill that would overhaul the controversial A-F system for grading schools, now set for implementation next school year.
  • During a House Public Education Committee hearing, education experts and activists testified on legislation related to the state's A-F accountability system for public schools and districts.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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