The most important obligation of our schools is to ensure our students are reading. In Texas, 58 percent of our third-graders are reading below level, and we rank 46th nationally in fourth-grade reading skills. We have an early reading crisis on our hands — a concern because reading success in the early grades strongly correlates with later academic achievement.

Yet, we know that most Texas children can learn to read — and read well. Texans want and deserve to know if our students are reading at grade level each year. After all, taxpayers are spending more than $60 billion annually on public education.

We cannot improve poor reading results if we do not measure how our schools are doing — and provide easy-to-access, actionable and understandable information about our schools. That is exactly what the state’s new A-F school accountability system accomplishes.

The A, B, C, D and F grades are easy to understand:

• In schools with A and B letter grades, students are generally learning.

• In schools with D and F letter grades, we have work to do.

Letter grades are certainly much easier to understand than Texas’ previous rating labels — “met standard” or “needs improvement”— which were near meaningless.

Furthermore, the A-F system is already working, as Texas superintendents are saying A-F will help them improve performance.

Critics, however, charge that districts like Austin ISD with significant numbers of poor students – who often start school several grade levels behind – will not get a fair shake. But poverty is no longer destiny when it comes to the new school district ratings. This is because 70 percent of a district’s overall letter grade is based on the better of their grades in student achievement or school progress.

While student achievement is largely based on STAAR test passage rates, school progress measures if students are growing a grade level each year and making progress when compared to districts with similar levels of poverty. That means regardless of STAAR passage rates, very high overall school district grades are quite possible. For example, Dallas ISD – one of the most beleaguered districts in the state – got an overall B because Dallas ISD students are learning and doing better than similar high-poverty districts.

Critics argue that the new A-F system relies too heavily on the STAAR standardized testing. No one likes standardized tests, of course, but they are our only way to independently measure whether Texas students are learning at grade level each year and make consistent comparisons. The tests ensure we have the same high expectations for our students, whether they’re in the Panhandle or Valley.

Furthermore, STAAR questions are written, designed and approved by Texas teachers — and they are aligned with the state’s curriculum standards.

There is also concern that districts with poor marks will be unfairly stigmatized. As the Texas Association of School Administrators 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, however, if they graduate without being able to read. Their opportunities are dashed for a lifetime. It’s our duty as educators, parents and communities to ensure that doesn’t happen. The new A-F accountability system will help us to do that.

Finally, there is the argument that A-F letter grades cannot tell us everything about a school. While that is true, letter grades can be a very strong signal of how a school is doing at teaching critical core skills, including early literacy.

The new system allows school districts to design their own local accountability system components to measure and grade what the local community cares about.

The new A-F accountability system will start some uncomfortable conversations, particularly between parents and school officials. It will also highlight great school practices that should be replicated.

Aren’t these conversations we should be having? We must focus on every Texas child, every day, in every classroom.

This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on August 26, 2018.