The Texas Education Agency rolled out a new A through F accountability system Wednesday that measures the academic performance of school districts.
The state's 1,200 public and charter districts were graded on three areas: Student Achievement, School Progress and Closing the Gaps. They received an overall letter grade of A, B, C, D or F and a grade in each of the three areas. In all, 153 districts got an "A" and 16 received "Fs".
Every year, the state grades school districts, schools and charters, but this is the first time it issued letter grades, replacing the previous pass/fail system.
Here's how several North Texas school districts performed:
- Allen ISD, A (95)
- Arlington ISD, C (78)
- Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, B (87)
- Cedar Hill ISD, C (75)
- Dallas ISD, B (81)
- Denton ISD, B (86)
- Desoto ISD, D (67)
- Duncanville ISD, C (73)
- Fort Worth ISD, C (75)
- Frisco ISD, A (96)
- Garland ISD, B (81)
- Grand Prairie ISD, B (80)
- Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, A (92)
- Highland Park ISD, A, (96)
- Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD, A (90)
- Irving ISD, B (80)
- Lancaster, C (79)
- Lewisville ISD, B (89)
- McKinney ISD, A (90)
- Mesquite ISD, C (79)
- Plano ISD, A (93)
- Richardson ISD, B (88)
- Waxahachie ISD, B (82)
Individual schools won’t receive a letter grade until next school year. For now, they're graded on the pass/fail ratings system. For example, struggling schools receive a rating of “improvement required,” while schools that meet the state's mininum standards receive a “met standard” rating.
Nearly 96 percent of the state's more than 8,700 campuses, including charter schools, received "met standard" or completed alternative benchmark ratings. An additional 86 schools would have gotten "improvement required" but were exempted because of Hurricane Harvey.
More: To see how your school district and school fared, you can visit the state’s new accountability website.
During a recent interview for the newly launched TEA Time podcast, Education Commissioner Mike Morath explained how this new evaluation system works and why it changed. He said giving letter grades will help people distinguish among districts and campuses that are average, good and great.
“It also allows us to change our focus and conversation from just the campuses that are ‘improvement required’ to campuses that are excellent, to our A campuses,” Morath said. “It is generally beneficial for us to sort of focus on our highest-performing campuses, our highest-performing teacher teams and ask ourselves, ‘What are they doing?’ and ‘How can we replicate their work? How can we expand their work to get that level of excellence for as many kids as possible?’”
The new system has generated controversy, however, with school leaders across the state saying the letter grades are unfair and don't reflect the progress being made at their schools.
Arlington ISD, C
Statement from Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos:
“I am proud of the success of so many of our campuses and the work of our students, teachers and staff. In the Arlington ISD, we work to close performance gaps and to create opportunities for our students to be prepared for college, career or the military, and I don’t believe an oversimplified A-F label will ever be able to capture the true essence of teaching and learning.
“Giving a single grade to a campus or district – especially one that is only based on standardized test scores as is the case in elementary and junior high schools – does not account for the multitude of successes students have over an entire school year. We will use these results as one piece of data to inform our improvement efforts across the district as we remain focused on providing exceptional opportunities for our students.”
Dallas ISD, B
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa at morning press conference in Dallas:
“I’m not a fan of ‘A’ through ‘F.’ I testified against it because a simple answer to a complex issue is not always the best way to go. Despite saying that, it would be unfortunate if I didn’t thank our employees and students who helped us earn a grade of ‘B.’
“There’s still much more that we need to do. We haven’t arrived. It’s a 26-mile marathon. And we may be on mile 6 right now, so we have a whole lot more work to do. We’ve done well but we haven’t arrived.”
Fort Worth ISD, C
Statement from Superintendent Kent Scribner:
“Four years ago we had 24 IR or “improvement required” campuses. On Wednesday, we learned we have 11. We’ve reduced the number of IR campuses by more than half. What we’re doing is working and we must stay the course.
“Our work has just begun. Our efforts during the recently concluded school year prove that our children are not the problems. They are assets in which to invest.”
Scribner at afternoon press conference in Fort Worth:
"[We've] turned the corner. And what we are doing is working, and we must stay the course. We’re excited that the growth that we’ve seen year to year…we saw an 8 percent increase in the aggregate student achievement of our district. Our district serves a student population…77 percent are economically disadvantaged. We have almost half of our students coming from homes where English is not the primary language. And we believe that our investment strategically and in a targeted way of our resources to those students who are in the greatest need is proving to be the right strategy, and we are absolutely seeing results."
Garland ISD, B
Statement from Superintendent Ricardo López:
“We are proud of the work our staff does to ensure college and career readiness for all Garland ISD students, and we celebrate their academic successes. The feedback we get from the state will help us continue to make progress toward our goal of improving student achievement and providing an exceptional education to every child. We are within sight of an A rating and have multiple measures in place for a very bright future in Garland ISD. We are starting strong and charging on.”
Irving ISD, B
Statement from Superintendent Jose L. Parra:
“The 'B' letter rating is a reflection of the hard work of our students and teachers. This year’s rating is also a signal to our patrons and the business community that we are continuing to make sure every student reaches their maximum potential."
Richardson ISD, B
Statement from Superintendent Jeannie Stone:
"Regardless of ratings, we want to keep the intended purpose of the accountability system in mind as a tool that educators can use to improve student achievement. As we do each year, the system will be used to help us identify areas in which we’re doing well and also opportunities for improvement. "It’s important to remember that almost all of the data used to determine ratings comes from a single assessment instrument, which obviously can’t capture the complete picture of how a child is learning and growing. We will continue to focus on teaching and evaluating all students throughout the school year and keeping the STAAR test, and the ratings that primarily result from it, in perspective.”
In the spring, KERA produced a series about low-performing schools in North Texas and what those schools are doing to improve.
Four of the five schools featured in the series had been rated “improvement required” multiple years. Pinkston High School in the Dallas Independent School District had turned things around and met the state’s education standards three consecutive years.
The ratings released Wednesday show improvement at all of the failing schools we reported on: John T. White Elementary and Mitchell Boulevard Elementary in Fort Worth, Wimbish Elementary in Arlington and Edison Middle Learning Center in Dallas, (which is being absorbed into Pinkston High School this fall).
In Dallas and Fort Worth, the school districts have overhauled some of their struggling schools by adding highly rated teachers, extending the school day and offering more afterschool activities and tutoring.
Just four schools in the Dallas school district were rated "improvement required" Wednesday – down from 43 schools that got that rating four years ago. In that same time, the number of IR schools in Fort Worth decreased from 24 to 11.
Fort Worth ISD
In Fort Worth, John T. White Elementary had been on the state’s “improvement required” list five times — the entire time the school’s been open. And Mitchell Boulevard Elementary was rated “improvement required” three times in a row.
White and Mitchell Boulevard face similar issues such as a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students and high student mobility rates. That means students move in and out of school a lot. They may start the school year there and then leave, only to return later in the year. Or, they may start later in the year and leave before the school year ends. This constant moving disrupts a student’s ability to learn and retain information.
In response to the challenges, Fort Worth ISD turned these schools into "leadership academies," zeroing in on student data. They looked at where students were struggling and which students were having trouble. They tweaked how they prepare students for state assessments like STAAR. They served not only breakfast and lunch but dinner, too.
School district officials say these changes seem to be working. At a school board meeting in June, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner said he was pleased with what he’d seen so far.
“These schools achieved double-digit improvements for all five of our leadership academies,” Scribner said. “Early results indicate that our strategy is working, focusing on fewer things: elementary literacy, middle years mathematics and college and career preparedness.”
Wimbish Elementary in Arlington ISD had been rated “improvement required” four straight years. To change its outlook, the school changed how it greeted students in the morning. They shook kids’ hands and asked them to talk about the “good things” happening in their lives.
Debra Wall, then the school’s dean of instruction and now its principal, told KERA the students were taught to set goals and keep track of their progress. They even learned how to track their own data.
“One class, [teachers] gave [students] a choice. ‘Do you like bar graphs or do you like line graphs? What do you want?’ The kids love the line graphs, so they did line graphs,” Wall said. “Then one class actually started building loops so for every assessment they passed, they got to put a loop up and the loops are hanging up all over the classroom.”
In Dallas, Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center, will no longer be housed in the same building. It failed to meet the state’s minimum standards for five straight years and this fall, its new home will be inside a neighboring school, Pinkston High School. It will be a school within a school.
Like at other struggling schools, students at Edison face numerous challenges at home that interfere with their learning. Problems at home cause stress and that stress carries over to the classroom.
While the state and Dallas ISD saw a slight uptick in eighth-grade reading passing rates between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years, Edison saw a slight decline.
And during the 2013-14 school year, 100 percent of students who attended Edison were economically disadvantaged — nearly 40 percentage points higher than the state's average. Last school year, 90 percent of the school's students were economically disadvantaged.
Despite these odds, educators here and at the other schools said they were optimistic. They all believed their students could do better.
We'll update this story after the state's new ratings are released and we talk to districts about their results. A press conference about the state's new ratings is scheduled to take place Wednesday afternoon at Wylie ISD. Education Commissioner Mike Morath will attend.