Unfocused Accountability of A-F

Clear accountability motivates us in the right direction.  It focuses effort on improvements related to the checklist.  School accountability, at it’s core, is a good thing.  A decade ago, ratings were relatively comprehensible as the percentage of students meeting standard on a series of assessments.  Labels of Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, or Unacceptable were based on the performance of all demographics (African-American, White, Economically Disadvantaged, etc.).  A system with flaws, but generally understood.

The pursuit of accountability standards caused schools to make good on important conversations.  Why are minority students underperforming compared to white, affluent students?  Why are economically disadvantaged students struggling to meet standards?  What can we do differently?

TAKS gave way to the STAAR/EOC era.  Once many schools met the challenge of TAKS, the logic was to make assessments tougher in order to “raise the bar.”  As educators adapt to complex assessments, learning complexity should evolve.

The rating system also changed.  Four labels were replaced with distinctions in seven possible categories.  Additionally, schools no longer operated under a universal standard for all schools.  In order to earn a category distinction, school competed for a Top 25% placement of 40 demographically alike schools.  This system is explained through this LEAD4WARD resource.

The distinction system acknowledged a correlation between affluence and overall achievement.  It also held schools accountable to the percentage of students meeting passing standards AND advanced levels of performance.  Educators studied the strongest performing schools in their group because “they were like us” and to “out-compete” at least 30 of the 40 schools.

The absence of an overall rating left a void legislators felt compelled to fill.  The new A-F ratings fill that void, but the method isn’t explained easily.  The first 20 pages of this TEA document describe the system.  “Ratings” are a more accurate description than “grades,” because grades mislead one to believe a letter is awarded based on a simple percentage out of the whole.   Many, many, many, stories describe the frustration of operating under two conflicting rating systems (distinctions and A-F), as well as concerns A-F labels correlate to affluence.

Where does this ultimately take students?  Despite the intent of accountability, SAT scores hit a 22 year low in 2014 and have stayed there.  Texas ranks #43rd in the nation on average SAT score.  The format of STAAR/EOC does arguably little to prepare for the SAT.

Where does this ultimately take schools?  Schools ignore a degree of test prep at their own peril.  Enough takes place that legislators limited the days students take district benchmarks.  Unsuccessful students commonly lose elective classes (ex: fine arts) for assessment intervention.  Additionally, labels negatively impact recruitment and retention of quality teachers in our most disadvantaged schools and in the profession.

Texas educators endure ratings-based criticism and show up ready to serve students.  Yet, A-F labels do not inform educators to better serve students.  A system that started with clear intent lost it’s focus on students.  School accountability is healthy, but only with clarity and purpose.