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Texas' A-F Ratings Contain Valuable Data. Let's Use It

This essay on the latest addition to Texas' school accountability system originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

Article by William McKenzie October 17, 2018 //   6 minute read

Over the last two years, I have sat on a panel advising Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on how to weight various metrics in the ranking of our state's schools under the new A-F rating system. Now that the rankings are in place and contain enough benchmarks to fairly evaluate districts, it's time we take advantage of the information. 

The "we" includes educators as well as superintendents and school trustees. Their job, after all, is to ensure students are acquiring the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of meaning, purpose, and mobility.

The most important result, the one that will make this a productive system, is to use the data to provide interventions for struggling students and underperforming campuses. Last year, my Bush Institute colleague Anne Wicks and I interviewed education leaders from school districts to statehouses to Washington about the future of school accountability. Many emphasized that school rating systems and other accountability tools are too often seen as a way to play gotcha instead of driving change. 

I couldn't agree more, which is why this A-F system now needs to lead to strategies that improve student learning. The grades are not intended to blame districts and schools but to use the information to make them better.

In Dallas' case, the district earned an overall B under the new rankings. That is good. The grade puts the Dallas Independent School District on par with affluent districts like Highland Park and Alamo Heights.

But the new data also reveals the district needs strategies to elevate the writing abilities of its nearly 160,000 students. DISD's writing scores were lower than the district's performance on state exams in math, science, reading and social studies.

Sixty percent of DISD students were approaching grade level in the subject on the STAAR writing exam. Thirty-five percent actually met the grade-level standard on that exam. And just 11 percent showed a mastery of the subject. 

Those results mean the majority of the district's students are not writing in a way they should be for their grade. And only a small percentage are doing so in a way that shows they are on track to adequately express themselves once they enter college or the workforce.

The lack of writing skills matters enormously in a service-oriented economy that requires clear expression, a technological age that requires people who can think logically as they identify and solve problems, and a global marketplace that rewards the ability to communicate across cultures. 

How can the district use this data to implement successful strategies?

One effective approach is to make writing a school-wide priority. Weave it into courses other than those largely devoted to writing. For example, make writing a part of the math curriculum, asking students to describe how they solved a problem. A middle school guidebook the Bush Institute put together with the University of Texas' Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk emphasizes how a school-wide approach can help improve writing skills. 

At the same time, all teachers need training in developing writing skills. This goal shouldn't be just an aim for English language arts instructors. In a diverse state like Texas, this training particularly should include English as a second language instructors.

To be fair, DISD is not alone in needing to use the A-F system to drive improvement. Even in districts like Plano, which earned an A, the data reveals areas that need attention.

For example, 35 percent of Plano students are not reading at the appropriate grade level as measured on the state's reading exam. Break that down further, and you find that 56 percent of African American students, 55 percent of Hispanic students, and 26 percent of white students are not reading at the right grade level. 

Here, too, proven strategies can help. The U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse contains a number of recommendations that can help students coming through the system as early as kindergarten.

The recommendations emphasize fundamentals like decoding words, mastering academic language, and making sure students are catching their own word errors. Any effective reading teacher knows these basics, but they must be driven home by school leaders and applied across all classrooms. Reading is not just a subject for reading class.

The leaders driving these strategies should include school trustees and superintendents. They can't -- and shouldn't -- ride herd over every classroom. But they can put in place systems that capture data and turn it into action. That includes creating policies and practices that support school principals -- and reduce unnecessary burdens on them -- so they can help their teachers improve student achievement.

Some interventions require money, which is why state and local funding matters. 

But this new twist in Texas' accountability system provides a chance for the leaders of the state's 1,000-plus school districts to mine valuable information and turn it into a path forward for students. That is the real importance of the A-F rankings. 

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