Public School Advocates Give A-F School Rating System an ‘F’

Larry Taylor
Larry Taylor

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) wants to change the way Texas grades its public schools, and during a hearing today he laid out his plan: grading schools like students, on an “A” to “F” scale.

Senate Bill 6 provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools in order to make the best decision for their child,” Taylor said.

Texas’ current rating system includes two categories—“met standard” and “needs improvement.” The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.

Dozens of people testified against Taylor’s bill, including several school district superintendents. They argued that letter grades would do nothing to improve schools, would punish schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students and would sidestep the main problem struggling schools face: lack of adequate funding. Democrats on the committee seemed to agree.

“[Poor performance] is more because of lack of resources than anything else,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said. “I would really caution us from getting into any scheme that redlines school districts.”

Most of the Republicans on the committee supported the idea that an A-F system would better inform parents how public schools are performing, spur parent engagement, and lead to school improvement.

John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform think tank established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, testified that the A-F rating system led to dramatic school improvement in Florida. In the program’s first six years, the number of “F”-rated schools fell and the number of “A” schools rose—but much of that change was the result of changing criteria for the letter grades.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed Bailey to name specific schools that have improved because of the A-F rating system. Bailey couldn’t name any, but said he would get back to West.

An A-F rating system was adopted in Florida in the late 1990s when Bush was the state’s governor. The Florida Association for District School Superintendents opposed the A-F rating system, saying that it may not be an accurate measure of school performance.

Sixteen other states have since adopted the so-called Florida formula. Researchers have shown that Maine’s A-F rating system tends to track the percentage of poor students in a school. Indeed, research has shown that there is a very tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Some say the system can be easily gamed for political purposes. In 2013, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett scandalously manipulated his state’s A-F system to benefit a major campaign donor.

At today’s hearing, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said one of his main concerns was the way an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez wondered, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

Published at 5:21 pm CST