For years, districts and others have pushed back against the state's accountability system, which leans heavily on test scores.

Each year, principals and parents wait on the release of the Texas Education Agency's annual school ratings. This year's results could have big implications for the Houston Independent School District in particular. But it's also the first time campuses will get ratings under the newest A-F letter grade system, meant to offer a more intuitive way to assess school performance. 

Critics argue the new system is too simplistic and narrow. Districts have been organizing alternative accountability efforts on their own for years but in 2017, the state education agency got involved, creating its Local Accountability System, allowing districts and charter campuses to create their own, supplemental rating. But what was meant to empower districts to assess their strengths and weaknesses in a more comprehensive way has, according to one of the districts responsible for helping push through the foundational legislation for the program, instead highlighted some of the ongoing tension between the state and school districts looking to move away from what they say is an overreliance on test scores. 

"I told my board this is hurting me in my gut to do this but I am so frustrated with the way this has evolved," said HD Chambers, Superintendent of the Alief Independent School District in southwest Houston, on his decision to withdraw from the state's pilot program.

The current accountability system scores campuses and districts in three categories: student achievement, student progress and gaps in student achievement by race, socioeconomic status and other characteristics. Student achievement combines state test scores, results from other tests like the SAT and AP exams as well as dual enrollment course completion and graduation rates. School progress tracks student performance on state tests over time as well as how their test scores compare to other campuses and districts with a similar share of economically disadvantaged students. The final category combines a mix of the data from the previous categories as well as English language proficiency and other measures to determine whether specific demographic groups meet state-determined performance targets. 

"I think parents really appreciate the simplicity of the system," said Andy Canales, the executive director for the Latinos for Education and the former director for Children at Risk's Center for Social Measurement and Evaluation. He credited the agency's rating system for incorporating comparative data. "It does try to balance sheer student achievement, so what percentage of kids are doing reading and math on grade level, with how schools are performing [compared] to other schools statewide that have similar levels of poverty along with student growth," he explained.

"If I had a magic wand," added Canales. "I would want to see: is there a relationship between a school's letter grade and the amount of resources that that school is receiving because I think there is an imbalance in the level of resources schools receive."

A school's annual ranking can have big consequences, including potential state takeover of a district if a campus performs poorly year after year. Groups like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and the Texas Association of School Administrators have long pushed back against the high-stakes testing and a rating system that they argue takes too narrow a view of school and student success.

"Obviously, there's a role for the state to play and for the federal government to play but when there's a rating system that is solely based on a test and only on limited subjects and only in certain grades and those tests don’t necessarily reflect all of the things that children need to have to be prepared for the future, we don’t think those carry much weight," said Kevin Brown, executive director of TASA who started his long education career in the classroom. His organization, working with more than 60 school districts across the state, promotes the creation of local accountability systems and district-driven efforts to communicate campus strengths and weaknesses beyond standardized testing performance.

Following the approval of House Bill 22 in 2017, the state education agency then launched its own pilot effort for districts who wanted to add a local accountability score to their state assessment. But that effort has revealed ongoing tension between the state and school districts when it comes toward moving beyond a rating system that is heavily reliant on test scores.

Chambers, who helped craft the bill responsible for the program, said that his experience over the course of several months of meeting with the state agency and other school districts interested in creating local accountability plans was a frustrating one. Instead of letting the school districts determine what they wanted to include in their plans, he said, the state sought to present a sort of menu of options, many of which were still reliant on student outcomes instead of inputs like professional development, for example. "In other words, it wasn’t going to be local," he said. Still, he believed in the effort and the program's potential.

The process had been moving along throughout the year, he said, even as other districts were dropping out. "We’re continuing to put our metrics together…we’re staying in touch via phone, via email, via meetings…we thought we were in good shape." But when the district submitted its plan for approval around the end of the school year, he said, "It was denied."

The Texas Education Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

Coalitions like the one behind TASA's local accountability system effort attract an array of school districts from across the state and tap into a common frustration with high-stakes testing. Every year, parents opt out of the test, holding their children home from school on testing days, even hosting alternative schools instead. School boards pass resolutions voicing their objections to the high-stakes tests and in support of alternative, locally-driven accountability processes. One Texas mayor even tried to ban the state's standardized test inside city limits—a move he acknowledged was more protest than policy.

"We know it’s a requirement, we know it has some value for parents and so we certainly are not against giving the test," said Brown. "We’re not against giving the results of the test," but, he said, "We think the tests have very limited value in what it tells us about a child."

Allowing local communities to determine what they want to see evaluated—art offerings? professional development? social and emotional curriculum?—means those plans are that much more useful for parents and administrators. "A single letter grade does not tell us how to improve," said Brown. "Let's say I'm a superintendent and I get an A. What does that mean?" Local accountability systems, he said, offer a broader but also more fine-grained picture.

Over the years, TASA has pushed for action from the state, including an effort in 2015 to pass legislation allowing some high-performing districts to opt-out of the state ratings while they developed their own accountability systems to show the state. "It passed the House, it passed Senate and Gov. Perry vetoed it," said Eric Simpson, director of learning and leadership services at TASA.

All the while, though, districts were moving ahead on their own. "Right now we have a total of 45 districts active, actually putting together certain components of the system, implementing them with the school board and recording the results," said Simpson. "It really is a truly grassroots effort," he said, adding, "We don’t like A-F and we will continue to not like A-F, but it's really independent of this."

The state's Local Accountability System, meanwhile, combines state-approved plans with the state's existing rating system. But, Chambers said, the state wasn't supportive of some of the metrics his district wanted to include. "I wanted some way for there to be a recognition that all this input into adult training on how to deal with the kids we have actually benefits and there is a result of student performance that we can apply to it," said Chambers, "but it's not a test score, it would be things like attendance, discipline referrals."

Alief ISD is a particularly diverse district. In 2017, roughly 43 percent of its students were English language learners, according to state numbers. The vast majority of its students are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Chambers estimated that the district has roughly 1,000 students who came to the country as refugees in addition to undocumented students and other recent immigrants. A local accountability system could be particularly important for districts like Alief where meeting student needs means teachers could benefit from training that helps them support students who have experienced trauma, for example.

"That’s a real thing in our district," he said.

Others have also pointed out the way reliance on test scores often punishes schools with higher rates of poverty. It's the reason why the group behind the SAT recently announced it would add an "adversity score," acknowledging the link between higher incomes and higher scores. But attempting to reverse engineer the test to be more meaningful in a way that it's failed to be isn't useful, argues Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "We should be trying to level the playing field by providing historically disenfranchised people opportunities to build wealth rather than retrofitting test results around inequality," he wrote recently for the Hechinger Report.

Other standardized tests have received similar criticism. Christopher Tienken, an associate professor of education leadership management and policy at Seton Hall University, and his colleagues looked at data from several different states to determine what predicted test performance. "[S]tandardized tests don’t really measure how much students learn, or how well teachers teach, or how effective school leaders lead their schools. Such tests are blunt instruments that are highly susceptible to measuring out-of-school factors," according to Tienken, who wrote about the findings for The Conversation.

"I think there's an important equity argument to be made," said Brown, on the importance of more comprehensive measures of student success and growth.

Even though Alief's local accountability plan won't show up alongside the state ratings this year as part of the state's Local Accountability System, Chambers said they still plan to publicize the results of their system. "We’re going to move forward, we're going to publicize our local accountability system as we wrote it. It's very meaningful," said Chambers.

"Doing fine on a single test score doesn’t tell me much," he said. "Until we get beyond that I think we're going to be fighting an uphill battle."

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