TEA's school district grades provide little clarity


Just in time to cause parents to worry and wonder if the teachers and staff at their children's schools are up to the task, the Texas Education Agency released its first round of A-F letter grades for school districts. 

At first glance, the idea of an A-F grading system for schools and school districts seems simple enough. A letter grade is good enough for our students, right? 

But like just about anything else, once politics and big money get involved, the idea of a simple A-F grading system to offer parents transparency about the quality of the schools and districts becomes as clear as mud. 

State officials say the new letter grading system improves transparency and provides parents an easier system for understanding how a school, and a district, is performing. 

However, those who work in the hundreds of school districts across the state have repeatedly pushed back against an A-F rating system, saying a simple letter grade leaves too much important information about a district’s efforts and performance out. 

The ratings certainly are complicated, and as we learned with Leander ISD’s scores and ‘B’ letter grade, offer nothing resembling a clear and concise picture of performance. The TEA website says Leander ISD was scored 93, 89 and 89 in the three primary categories. Yet the district says it got a 95. The state website says it got a ‘B.’ 

Which is correct? All, apparently. Yes. That’s right. All are correct. Sound confusing?  

There are rules allowing districts to drop the lower of two primary category scores. There are rules preventing an overall ‘A’ grade if any individual campus needs to improve, regardless of how well the other campuses do. There are rules limiting how much emphasis in the scoring can be placed on standardized test scores. 

School districts all across the state have pushed back against the system, arguing that the job of educating students in diverse communities across the state can’t be effectively distilled down to a simple letter grade. 

Still, we wonder, why not? Again, it’s good enough for students. 

Well, for one, politics is involved. 

What politics? How about the continuing drive by many conservatives to shift public funding from underperforming schools to private and parochial schools. That effort goes all the way to the top, with a chief promoter of that idea being U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

Instead of working to improve underperforming schools, adding funding and resources to lift students in poverty and struggling with other challenges to rise above and succeed, the idea is to let parents who are active, involved, and have some money to get additional money to move their children to private or religious-based schools — that additional money being taxpayer money. 

The argument against that is that the other students are the ones who are punished. And in the end, the community at large suffers in order for a few to succeed. The sidebar to that argument is the idea that convincing taxpayers and elected officials to approve this shift of public education funds to private education would be much easier if the trust in our schools was undermined by something like an overly simplistic and not-at-all realistic letter grade. 

We take no side on either of those positions for or against the letter grades. 

What we do take issue with is that much of the trouble with our school systems lies with the continued battles over funding. That starts with the state legislature. 

Texas now spends $4,000 less, per student, than the national average to educate its students. 

This isn’t an argument about the quality of the buildings or the size of the football stadiums. The funding formula for per-student expenditures isn’t impacted by capital improvements. 

This is purely about what the state is willing to expend on education, and then what those at local school boards and in local district offices do with those funds. 

Even here in Leander ISD, where property values and taxes are high, students graduate and go on to college in extraordinary numbers, parents still have to send things like Kleenex to school. 

In Round Rock ISD, where the district was graded ‘A’ by the TEA, parents have reported having to send toilet paper to school with their students.

While the TEA grades for school districts are out this year, the agency will begin releasing letter grades for individual school campuses next year. Unless the system is fixed, we’ll have more anger and frustration from parents, teachers and administrators. 

Whatever the letter grade, our area schools are doing well by most objective standards. Graduation rates are high. Large percentages of students go on to further their educations, many earning scholarships to assist in that process. Incidents of violence are low. 

That said, we have to give the legislature an ‘F’ for its handling of the grading system, and an ‘F’ for addressing the funding problems with our school districts. That’s where we need to focus efforts to improve.