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Legislature unanimously approves last-minute overhaul of school A-F ratings

The Senate and House negotiated a compromise on how to tweak a statewide plan for grading schools and districts. Educators and advocates are asking why the overhaul happened so late, without their official input.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (left), R-Houston, and state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the House passing the conference committee report on House Bill 22.

Texas House and Senate education leaders came to a compromise on how to tweak a plan for grading schools and districts, which the House and Senate each passed without dissent Sunday evening.

The Senate voted 31-0 and the House voted 140-0 to approve a conference committee report on House Bill 22, editing a plan lawmakers approved in 2015 to start giving Texas schools grades of A-F. The two chambers had struggled to see eye-to-eye on how much weight to give students' standardized test scores when grading a school or district, and on how much flexibility educators should have in determining how they are assessed. On Saturday, members from both chambers spent hours hashing out the differences.

Educators and advocates on both sides Sunday expressed concern that such major changes were made so late in the process, when it was too late for public input. The House is expected to vote on the compromise Sunday evening.

In 2015, the Legislature first decided to switch to an A-F system of grading schools and districts to replace the current pass/fail system. Educators statewide protested against the original plan, which they said relied too heavily on standardized tests and did not give an accurate sense of how schools were performing.

“You know that most of the schools and the districts in your [legislative] districts were not happy with the implementation” when A-F was first rolled out, said Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, to the House late Sunday. The final version of this legislation rewards schools for their progress, while also highlighting where they need work, he said.

The House and Senate came to a compromise that has more "balance," state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill's sponsor in that chamber, told the Senate Sunday evening.

Taylor originally wanted an accountability system with more weight on standardized tests and less flexibility on how to grade schools. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored the bill, wanted less weight on standardized tests and local choice on which exams to use to judge schools.

In the compromise version of the bill, schools and districts would be graded in three categories: student achievement, student progress and closing the gaps. Elementary and middle schools would be assessed in each of those categories by how well students are doing on the standardized state exam. High school grades would be based on the standardized state test, as well as factors such as high school graduation rates, and rates of students taking advanced courses. 

Schools doing well could petition state education Commissioner Mike Morath to build their own accountability system that would account for at most half of the overall grade.

"Our local districts have some input into this accountability system," Taylor said. "The best way to get things done is to have the people you're working with develop their own goals."

Under the final version of HB 22, districts will get their first grades in August 2018, and individual schools in August 2019. The Senate had originally opposed any delay of implementation to 2019, and the House had wanted to delay all grades to 2019.

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said he approved so much of the changes that he would consider changing his position on the A-F rating system overall. "I've never been a big fan of A-F, but based on what I've seen here, I may have to re-evaluate my position," he said.

But educators and advocates on both sides were concerned that HB 22 had changed so drastically without public input. 

"Giving the public virtually no time to review or weigh in on this last-minute proposal is troubling," said Courtney Boswell, executive director of Texas Aspires, which supported the original A-F system and has been skeptical of proposed changes. "We are unsure how this system has come together in order to be meaningful for students, parents, educators, and communities. Texas students deserve a measured approach to fixing our accountability system instead of hastily passing an unvetted system that may create unintended consequences."

Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers, who was involved in creating the original bill, said many superintendents are asking: "Why, at the last second, did this change happen?"

He supports the negotiated version's flexibility for some campuses and districts in determining how they are graded. "You're giving campuses and districts the chance to be innovative, within whatever the parameters are going to be. At least it's a step in that direction," he said.

But he said the compromise version of the bill still relies on standardized state test scores, instead of alternative measures, and gives Morath too much power to approve future changes to the system.

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