Setting Aside A-F is a Legislative Imperative

Johnny L. Veselka By Johnny L. Veselka, Executive Director, TASA
 
The following is the Executive Director's Message from the fall 2016 issue of INSIGHT, the professional journal of the Texas Association of School Administrators:
 
When the 84th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2804 in May 2015, legislators created the Texas Commission on Next-Generation Assessments and Accountability to develop and recommend new systems of student assessment and public school accountability. The charge to commission members included “policy changes necessary to establish a student assessment and public school accountability system that meets state goals, is community based, promotes parent and community involvement, and reflects the unique needs of each community.”

As part of its deliberations, the commission was also required to consider the recommendations of the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium (THPSC) related to innovative, next-generation learning standards and assessment and accountability systems. While some aspects of the commission’s report reflect the THPSC’s ongoing work to transform the state’s assessment and accountability systems, the report falls far short in failing to address the A-F accountability ratings that are scheduled to be implemented for the 2017-2018 school year.

In HB 2804, the Legislature also postponed the requirement for the commissioner to assign A, B, C, D or F grades to districts and campuses beyond the upcoming legislative session. One might conclude that, perhaps, before finally adopting the A-F rating system, they wanted to gain further insight regarding issues associated with A-F ratings and possible “next-generation” alternatives that might be advanced by the commission.

Since Florida launched its test-based A-F system at the urging of Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, 17 states have adopted some form of this system. While advocates of A-F argue that it is “simple and transparent” and can be easily understood, nothing could be further from the truth. A single letter grade, based predominantly on standardized test scores, cannot bring clarity to educational accountability because of the nature and complexity within each public school. When that complexity is reduced to a single grade, it may represent some components accurately by chance, but it will undoubtedly misrepresent a good many others, if not most of them.

An A-F system fails to account for the presence of socioeconomic conditions that in turn influence performance. Wealthy schools are not automatically good schools, and poor schools are not automatically bad schools, and yet A-F grading systems tend to reward schools accordingly. Rather than help each improve according to its needs, the system tends to punish poor schools for being poor while telling rich schools they are doing fine. That leaves poorer schools even further behind, because the most likely means to achieve a higher grade in an A-F system is to change the demographic of the school.

Most poor schools accomplish a great deal in regard to their students, and with the right information they can accomplish even more. A-F systems instead frequently suggest poor schools are bad schools and insist upon changes without any sense of what those changes might be.

John Tanner, a passionate advocate for excellence in schools, author of “The Pitfalls of Reform,” and a consultant to TASA and local school districts, poses the following question: Do high or rising scores from the state test on a few core subjects signal that a worthwhile benefit has been provided? The answer is no. Any A-F system fails as a meaningful indicator of educational performance, creating more confusion than clarity, while damaging schools striving to prepare their students for college and career.

In a recent study commissioned by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University found that student achievement had not improved under the A-F system: “Not only have test scores stagnated or declined generally, performance drops have been most severe among low-income students.”

The study also found that schools with lower grades tended to do better with subpopulation groups than higher graded schools, and that schools with similar test score patterns received very different grades. What grades mean in such an environment is impossible to know. Even more confusing is that they provide no sense of what any school must do to improve.

Contrary to testimony presented before the commission by advocates of the Florida system, the significant growth in Florida’s student performance (the number of schools receiving A’s nearly tripled in the first two years of implementation) was largely associated with changes in state policy and rules rather than actual improvement. A-F system rules are frequently adjusted so the results match public expectation, meaning that the systems are seen operating properly when the results conform to some preconceived bias. It seems that at the heart of A-F systems is the desire to confirm a hypothesis that some schools are good and some are bad, a fact every educator already recognizes. What educators need are high-quality tools designed to support improvement. A-F systems were designed to do something else entirely. Recognizing the numerous issues with such systems, the state of Virginia wisely repealed its A-F school rating system in 2015.

Texas has a unique opportunity, when the 85th Legislature convenes in January, to draw on the experiences of these states and replace our A-F system with something better. Texas schools need a next-generation accountability program that is not overly reliant on high-stakes testing, but is well-balanced and instructionally sensitive, coupled with a defensible system of assessment focused on high-priority learning standards. Such a system will hold value for students, parents, teachers and policy makers. It would value what each community holds as uniquely important, support high-quality instruction and provide a clear process for community input.
Legislative Priorities
 
TASA will support or oppose and initiate legislation during the 85th Legislature in 2017 that aligns with association priorities.
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