School ratings are a shallow attempt to grade a complex system

JANUARY 25, 2017  FROM TRIB TALK – A PUBLICATION OF THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

by Charles Luke – Associate Director of Pastors for Texas Children

During the first week back from Christmas, Texas schoolchildren, parents, teachers, administrators and communities were greeted with the news that many of them aren’t up to snuff. On the same day that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unfurled his already infamous “bathroom bill”, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its 2015-16 A-F Ratings, effectively splashing cold water all over Texas communities diligently engaged in educating the state’s children. Although officials say these are preliminary report cards, thousands of schools feel shortchanged.

Dr. Charles Luke is the Associate Director of Pastors for Texas Children

Dr. Charles Luke is the Associate Director of Pastors for Texas Children

The A-F rating system — patterned after the A-F grading system on students’ report cards — was ushered in by the Texas Legislature in 2015 and was touted as a way for parents and communities to have a clear, concise way to tell just how well or poorly their schools are actually doing.

Regardless of this claim, research reported by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and conducted by the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University indicated that basing a letter grade almost exclusively on student test scores does not account for other factors that contribute to school performance, including factors outside of a teacher’s control. The researchers also found that A-F grades in Oklahoma did not lead to school improvement because they don’t explain what led to low performance and do nothing to build educational capacity.

Subsequent research by researchers at The Education Trust found that A-F systems actually mask low performance among certain sub-groups, hide high performance, and inhibit parental participation in low-performing schools.

One of the most compelling and as yet untold stories is what A-F will do to community development across Texas.

One of the most profound economic engines in Texas is the growth in property values and property taxes fueled by the steady influx of people from other states. A corporate-friendly state, Texas has reaped the benefits of new industry and rapid growth. All of this growth has led to the development of a strong residential real estate industry with steady and significant rises in the median home price over the last few years.

What happens to Texas communities when the quality of schools — a strong, locational motivator — is impugned by artificially low performance ratings? Highland Park ISD is an interesting example of this. The median home price in this area is just over $1.6 million. While the district received good grades on Student Achievement, Student Progress, and Closing Performance Gaps, they received a “C” on Postsecondary Readiness. Who wants to pay $1.6 million for a house only to put their child in a school that the rating system says provides weak preparation for college or the workforce? Realtors in Texas need to ask themselves why they are allowing an unproven system to be imposed that potentially will cost them millions of dollars in lost real estate commissions.

Whether the A-F release was pre-engineered to coincide with the lieutenant governor’s bathroom bill announcement or not, the timing couldn’t have been more symbolic. Patrick is an unyielding proponent of vouchers and the privatization of schools, something that A-F notoriously sets up by declaring large numbers of public schools as failures.

When the complex nature of educating large numbers of diverse children can be subverted with an oversimplified letter grade that says next to nothing, arguing for the need to replace that school becomes that much easier.

Finally, the A-F system is an insult to every child who works hard to learn and to every dedicated teacher who works hard to teach. For years, legislators have complained about organizations that rate their performance without understanding the complex nature of politics. Now, it looks like they are willing to do the same to our kids.