Accountability

Why These Districts Are Suing to Stop Release of A-F School Ratings

By Evie Blad — September 07, 2023 4 min read
Handwritten red letter grades cover a blue illustration of a classic brick school building.
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A growing coalition of Texas districts have sued to stop state Education Commissioner Mike Morath from releasing A-F school accountability ratings based on a new, tougher formula.

The lawsuit, filed in state court, argues that applying the new formula to last school year’s data will unfairly make it appear that their schools have worsened—even though, they say, in some cases outcomes have actually improved.

The challenge comes as districts in Texas—and around the country—face heightened pressure to show improvement following the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and across-the-board declines in student test results.

In effect, the new formula for the 2022-23 school year amounts to changing the rules after the game has already been played, the districts argued.

“Not only is that confusing, it is also unfair—continually moving the goalposts for school districts would prevent school districts from effectively implementing action plans to improve their performance ratings each school year,” said the lawsuit, brought by seven districts and filed in Travis County circuit court on Aug. 24.

School boards in at least four other districts have since authorized their superintendents to join the lawsuit. Nick Maddox, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he expects several more school systems to consider joining.

New system limits apples-to-apples comparisons

A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. At an Aug. 30 meeting of the state board of education, Morath said the lawsuit is “completely without merit.”

Before Texas adopted the A-F rating system in 2017, commissioners made smaller, incremental changes to scoring metrics used in school accountability on an annual basis, Morath said. That made it difficult to have “apples-to-apples” comparisons of district performance from one year to the next.

Still, those led to less “weeping and gnashing of teeth” than this year’s changes, which are the first significant update to the A-F system in five years, he told the state board.

In the lawsuit, the districts argue that Morath should have made districts aware of the criteria at the start of the 2022-23 school year instead of releasing a preliminary draft in May. The state law that created the A-F accountability system requires the commissioner to inform districts “each school year” of the “performance measures, methods, and procedures that will be applied for that school year,” the districts noted in the lawsuit.

Morath did not inform districts what specific changes he planned to make during the 2022-23 school year, which is the source of the data that will be measured in the new ratings, they contend.

Lower ratings could open the door for increased state intervention in districts, confuse the public, and help state Republicans build a case for expanded private school choice in advance of an expected October special legislative session, said Matthew Gutierrez, the superintendent of the Seguin school district.

The Seguin district’s school board authorized him to join the lawsuit at its Aug. 29 meeting.

“Our students and our teachers have worked so hard, and it’s completely being discounted and disregarded,” Gutierrez told Education Week.

The district plans to work with principals to thoughtfully communicate about the changes and find ways to explain to parents why some schools’ scores may drop, he said. Some elementary schools may see their grades drop from Bs to Ds, he said.

In addition to state accountability, school letter grades can affect everything from home prices in surrounding neighborhoods to teacher morale, superintendents said.

In Texas, it’s more difficult for schools to make the grade

Among the biggest changes in the state’s “accountability refresh” is a change to the cutoff points necessary to receive a high grade in college and career-readiness, a metric that measures how many of a district’s graduates enroll in college and enlist in the military, among other things.

Previously, a district could get an A in readiness if 60 percent of graduates took such a step. Under the revised system, it will take 88 percent of graduates to reach an A.

Schools must also work harder to earn a high grade for improving students’ state test scores.

Superintendents argue that shift is particularly inappropriate this year, because the state introduced a revised version of its STAAR test last year that included new requirements, like the use of computers, that can affect performance as students adjust.

“The Commissioner cannot change the goalposts on school districts by creating new measures, methods, and procedures throughout the school year and then decide to apply them retroactively in a manner that will artificially and arbitrarily lower school districts’ performance ratings,” the lawsuit says.

At least 15 states have adopted A-F school accountability systems since Florida pioneered the model in 1999. States including Michigan, Utah, and Virginia have since abandoned them. Others, until recently, were put on pause during the pandemic under U.S. Department of Education flexibility.

Supporters of the A-F systems say they provide concise, objective information about school performance to parents and the public. Opponents argue the public often doesn’t understand how the scores are calculated and that assigning an overall letter grade could obscure low performance for smaller demographic groups.

The seven Texas districts that filed the original lawsuit are: Canutillo, Crowley, Del Valle, Edinburg, Fort Stockton, Kingsville, and Pecos-Barstow-Toyah.

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