Commentary: Giving schools clear grades

Published by the Galveston County Daily News, March 25, 2015

By JOHN COLYANDRO AND F. CARTWRIGHT WEILAND

Education reform is front and center at the Texas Legislature this session, and proposals to reform the way schools are ranked would provide parents with greater clarity and consistency in comparing schools and districts across the state.

Texas public schools are rated according to quality by the Education Commissioner using language that needlessly obscures performance. Schools are considered to either “met standard” or “improvement required.” Beginning in 2016, campuses will be labeled using category rankings of “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable,” and “unacceptable.”

School districts, on the hand, are evaluated under a better performance system. Under the Education Code, the commissioner is required to assign each district a letter grade of A through F — A, B, or C reflects acceptable performance and D or F reflects unacceptable performance.

The letter-grade evaluation system has been implemented in other states for individual schools. In Florida, for example, substantial progress was achieved by using the system: “[I]n the first few years of implementation in Florida, D and F campuses outnumbered A and B campuses. By 2013, 59 percent of campuses in Florida had earned an A or B,” according to Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who is working to make the change.

As Taylor points out, the four campus designations lack the clarity of an A-F rating system. His legislation “provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools … .”

This is critical because students do not enroll in districts, they enroll in campuses.

Rating individual campuses on an A-F scale is the first step toward making the public school accountability system more accessible to parents.

Although Taylor’s bill does not mandate the criteria that TEA will use when deciding on a letter grade for each school, it deserves mention that the fairness and accuracy of those criteria (mostly test scores) will be the subject of ongoing debate.

Nevertheless, that the criteria used to award the A-F grades may not be perfect does not mean they are not useful. If, for whatever reason, the letter grade fails to capture certain internal dynamics of a school — for example, a single “A+” teacher inside a “D” school — a student can always indicate as much to his/her parent and, after investigating the situation, the parent can choose to keep the student at that campus. In other words, the rating system is one source of information regarding school quality, not the only one that parents will use to make decisions regarding their children’s education.

By giving parents transparent, easily decipherable evaluations of their children’s school campuses — some of which could influence parents’ decisions about where to send their child and force schools to achieve higher standards or face decreased enrollment — Taylor’s effort is one small but important step.

John Colyandro is the executive director and F. Cartwright Weiland is the policy analyst of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, a public policy foundation based in Austin.