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Denton ISD joins lawsuit against TEA over accountability decision

Denton ISD’s JW “Bill” Giese Professional Support Services Building.
DRC file photo
Denton ISD’s JW “Bill” Giese Professional Support Services Building.

The Denton ISD school board voted unanimously in a special called meeting Thursday to join a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency. The suit seeks an injunction to stop the TEA from retroactively changing accountability standards for the 2022-23 school year.

The state’s accountability standard assigns both school districts and their campuses an A-F rating based on the results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly know as the STAAR test. Typically, accountability ratings are published by Aug. 15, but TEA pushed them back as the agency struggled to revise the system.

Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said there are two principal issues that make the retroactive rating system unfair.

One issue is that the district’s ratings for college, career and military readiness — a metric that gives students three pathways from secondary education to economic and personal independence — considers the class of ’22.

“So based on the kids that graduated in ’22 … in order for your school to receive an ‘A’ in just that one domain, 60% of your students had to meet the CCMR threshold,” Wilson said. “We fast forward to now, and the TEA has recommended that number be moved to 80-something percent to get an A for that domain retroactive for the class of ’22. … I testified during the [legislative] session on that topic, and really tried to say, ‘Look, these kids are gone.’ It’s almost like the game is over but you shifted. You changed the rules.”

The second issue, Wilson said, is that TEA has struggled to find a fair way to average the declines in assessment that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the surge in academic growth, when students’ performance across domains improved. Wilson said the statistical measure the TEA settled on means that campuses could drop a letter grade in multiple domains in spite of schools making up for the ground lost during COVID. Losing letter grades is certain to impact a district’s overall accountability rating, Wilson said.

Families look at accountability ratings when they are considering schools for their children. Because students attend school in their geographic zone, families often look for housing near schools that have higher accountability ratings.

Denton ISD General Counsel Deron Robinson said the injunction will pressure TEA to pivot in its approach to accountability.

“The issue is that the commissioner of education [Mike Morath] is not following the education code as it pertains to the accountability system,” Robinson said. “One of the primary issues is that the commissioner of education ... is required to provide school districts, and parents and students, information at the beginning of the school year about how the accountability measure will be used in the upcoming year. Instead, what the commissioner of education is trying to do is is retroactively change last year’s grades.”

Robinson said Denton ISD joined other Texas school districts in the spring to lobby both lawmakers and the commissioner to address the accountability rating change during the 88th Texas Legislature.

Lawmakers didn’t address the accountability system rating change, and the commissioner proceeded with the plan.

“So this would just be a declaratory judgment to have the court say, ‘Mr. Morath, this is not in compliance with the law and therefore you need to go back and act in compliance with the law,’” Robinson said.

He said school districts had been hesitant to join the lawsuit.

“If I’m being real honest, I believe some of the reticence for districts to originally joining because I don’t think any school district wants to be seen as not wanting to have accountability and not believing in the importance of accountability,” he said. “The analogy that I love is it’s like we played a football game last night and we’ll tell you tomorrow who won because nobody knew the rules.”

The school board also voted Thursday to engage the law firm of O’Hanlon, Demerath, & Castillo to add Denton ISD as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

More than 80 school districts have joined the lawsuit, which is likely part of the reason TEA postponed the Sept. 25 hearing on the issue to Oct. 10. The districts seeking an injunction represent more than 1 million Texas students.