The Texas A-F Grading System Isn’t the Only Flaw
In accordance to House Bill 2804, the state released theoretical grades for campus and school district performances during the 2015-2016 school year, scored under the newly-mandated A-F letter grade system, which is currently under development and will not be effective until 2018. The bill requires that campuses and school districts be graded in four categories: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness. Additionally, districts and campuses will be graded on overall performance. Upon release, the grading system was met with overwhelming criticism from teachers and superintendents across the entire state on the basis that it is biased, too broad to pose as an accurate evaluation of school performance and a political scheme to privatize education.
One of the most emphasized advantages is that parents now “have something that’s fairly easy for folks to understand and concentrate on improvement over time—” a point made by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. Initially, the concept of an A-F system seemed appealing, but upon further research, the system’s shortcomings were gradually exposed. Considering that it took some amount of effort to sufficiently understand the rating system, concern is presented. Most parents may not take it upon themselves to develop anything other than a surface understanding of the system. Even engaged parents will most likely find it difficult to ascertain credible information on the topic, due to the fact that the new policies go into political and economic subjects that working parents typically don’t indulge in. Not to mention the complex mechanisms that go into scoring campuses and districts, the lack of understanding glaringly opposes claims that the A-F system will provide parents with a transparent understanding of school performance.
“I think this is just going to create more confusion for everyone—the board members, parents, the community,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “But that’s what’s going to happen when you try to give a simple solution to a complex issue.” And confusion has indeed been created.
When looking into how campuses and districts are graded, one would expect an unbiased methodology. However, Mesquite ISD Superintendent David Vroonland revealed that the A-F system assigns grades “on a bell curve, a forced distribution. Regardless of how well schools are doing, a certain percentage of them will be designated as D and F campuses.” This is most evident when analyzing grades in domain four—postsecondary readiness.
“In that domain every school in Mesquite scored in the nineties and yet we had schools rated as low as F in that domain. We even had one school get a distinction for attendance in the accountability system we use today and get a D in that category for chronically absent students,” Vroonland said.
A’s in this category were given only to schools whose attendance deviated least from 100-percent. This trend extends past domain four. Other nationally-recognized schools such as Westwood High School in Round Rock and Westlake High School in Eanes were unable to earn straight A’s under the new system, and schools that received high scores in the past system scored poorly under the new system. It is notable that the campuses and school districts that performed poorly under the new system had higher populations of economically disadvantaged students, while private schools were not graded. This poses bias against poor public schools and school districts.
“You can’t fund some schools at inadequate levels and then use the same metrics to grade them as others,” El Paso Representative Mary Gonzalez said. “If you do, you are going to hurt low-funded schools and communities of color and say that they are failures.”
Another aspect under fire is the opinion that the new system overgeneralizes campuses and districts. The new grading system is largely based on STAAR scores. Much like the argument that a series of alphanumeric grades do not fully encompass a student’s intellect, it is highly improbable that the new A-F rating system will adequately describe school performance in one character, because one letter is indeed too vague in either case.
“Do not let it affect your morale and most importantly don’t let it affect the morale of our students. They’re worth far more than a letter grade based on one test,” Vroonland said.
Although it is true that the new system is largely based off of STAAR scores, the current grading system uses STAAR scores as well. Ironically, superintendents and educators are uncomfortable with being judged through letter grades, while their students are mostly dismissed as a series of letter grades.
“Education is not a test, it is an experience and you just can’t grade that … because the variables are too great … but so is the outcome,” Midland teacher Krysta Reed said.
If educators are uncomfortable with being graded based on their students’ STAAR test scores, does that suggest fault within the public school system? There have been many instances in which errors have been found in STAAR tests and growing student opposition towards the tests. If students are “worth far more than a letter grade based on one test,” why do STAAR test scores determine if students pass or fail? The controversy of the new A-F rating system has expanded far beyond implementation or blocking. It has now ventured into the glaring flaws in the education system in its entirety.
It is popularly thought that the American education system is an outdated, insufficient system that fails to adequately help its students grow to the point that it has been said to kill creativity. The problem starts far before the way students are graded and ranked, which presents itself with its own set of issues—students are being taught to take tests. It is common for students to say that they are confident in having mastered what they have been taught, but that they are “bad at test-taking.” Understandably, it is difficult to measure if students meet the intelligence requirements set up for them and that there really is no true way to quantify student performance, but the value of tests is questionable and has been challenged frequently. When superintendents are uneasy about the rating system being based largely on a test created by the state of Texas, one has to ask why.
Arguably the most pressing issue is the many claims that the new system is a divisive move towards school choice and vouchers. In September of 2013, Texas Senate Bill 2 was taken into effect, which strengthens Texas charter schools and raises the cap on Texas charter schools. Like the release of the A-F rating system, the Bill was met with criticism. Educators on the public side of education wanted the bill to be blocked, while charter school operators who face school revocations fought it. Otherwise, it has received support from the majority of charter school educators. But, with the passing of Texas Senate Bill 2 and the A-F rating system, it truly seems that Texas legislature is shifting towards privatizing education.
“The goal is to make sure that our children are being served,” Texas Aspires Executive Director Courtney Boswell said. “I would hate for political issues to confuse a very positive tool we have for real accountability for maybe the first time in our state.”
Suppressing the obvious political side of education is the wrong way to approach the problem, and it would be a lie to deny that politics has a place in education. The concepts of privatizing education, school choice and vouchers are positive due to the competition that would encourage schools to improve, but the actual execution is poor. A level playing field is the basis of these concepts, which isn’t present, confirming an apparent bias towards more affluent private schools, leaving public schools that are required by law to accept all students in the dust. Because of this, businesses are more likely to flock to areas with campuses graded highly in the new system and real estate value will suffer in areas where campuses received poor grades. This will create an uneven distribution of wealth. Neighborhoods that are seen as satisfactory now will be susceptible to deterioration due to the unfair grading system, while neighborhoods in affluent schools will grow. In effect, this process can be considered the gerrymandering of education.
Conceptually, the A-F grading system and privatizing of education appears to be a good plan of action, but the education system is too fraught with problems to initiate these processes. Rather than create entirely new systems, our focus should be on reforming the current system, because a strong building cannot be built upon weak foundation. It is highly recommended that we contact our state legislators to express our beliefs and to consider re-election. We cannot become complacent with the situation at hand, and if students are truly important, it is vital that the community gets more involved with the politics of education.
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