After months of vocal criticism, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa suddenly gave credit to Texas' new A-F school accountability system for "moving in the right direction."
Hinojosa changed his tune about the new system after learning that, for the 2017-18 school year, Dallas ISD — one of the most beleaguered urban school districts in the nation — got an overall grade of a B, and even outperformed several nearby districts, including Mesquite, Lancaster, Duncanville, Cedar Hill and Ferris, most of whom have fewer economically disadvantaged students than Dallas ISD.
Dallas ISD's high grade was possible because under the state's new A-F accountability system, school districts like Dallas ISD, with significant numbers of economically disadvantaged students that often start school several grade levels behind, can still get an overall grade of A or B. Unlike previous systems, poverty is no longer destiny when it comes to school district ratings. This is because 70 percent of a school district's overall letter grade is based on the better of their grades in student achievement or school progress.
In student achievement, Dallas ISD got a C grade; the C reflected that only 41 percent of its students were performing at grade level on the STAAR exam (below the state average of 48 percent) and only 45 percent graduated ready for college, career or military (below the state average of 54 percent). That means Dallas ISD still has a long way to go to ensure students have the knowledge and skills for success at each grade level.
However, in school progress, Dallas ISD shined, with a B grade. This is because Dallas ISD students are learning and growing faster than the state average. Furthermore, Dallas ISD's economically disadvantaged students are making more progress than students in school districts with similar levels of poverty.
In the state's new A-F accountability system, Dallas ISD, along with many other urban districts, was fairly recognized for the growth and learning that has been taking place in the school district.
Even though the new A-F system gave high overall grades to many districts, like Dallas ISD, that are large and have high rates of poverty, there's still significant pushback from school officials. The Texas Association of School Administrators is loaded for bear on this issue, with talking points and a resolution opposing A-F for school boards to adopt. Many districts already have, and that's a shame.
The biggest complaint about A-F is that it relies too much on high-stakes STAAR standardized testing. No one likes high-stakes tests, of course, but they are our only way to independently gauge if our Texas students are learning and growing at grade level each year and to ensure we have the same high expectations for all students, whether in the Panhandle or the Valley.
Furthermore, STAAR questions are written, designed and approved by Texas teachers. And they are aligned with the state's curriculum standards. More importantly, as mentioned, the A-F system doesn't simply take the raw STAAR scores and slap on a grade for school districts.
There's also concern that districts and schools with poor marks will be unfairly stigmatized. As the school administrators association puts it, "A-F rating systems create a false impression about an entire neighborhood of children and shames students."
But students are not harmed by a letter grade put on their school district. They are harmed if they graduate high school without being able to read and do math. Their dreams and opportunities are dashed for a lifetime. It's our duty as educators, parents and community members to ensure that doesn't happen. The A-F accountability system will help us to do that.
The system will start some uncomfortable conversations, particularly among parents and school officials. But aren't those the conversations we should be having? We must focus on every Texas child, every day, in every classroom.
This commentary was originally featured in the Dallas Morning News on August 27, 2018.