UNT assistant professor weighs in on new school district ratings

The Texas Education Agency released new report card-like grades for state school districts on Wednesday. The grade assigned to each school will be based on student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test.

UNT’s College of Education assistant professor Noelle Paufler, a former high school social studies teacher, district administrator and applied researcher in large urban and suburban school districts, offered her insight into what those grades mean:

How do these rankings work, and how are they calculated?

“Today, all public school districts in Texas received a letter grade of A to F, based on a score (1 to 100) that reflects their performance across three domains, student achievement, school progress, and closing the gaps. Collectively, these three domains are intended to provide a snapshot of how well districts and campuses (in August 2019) are educating students. The first domain, student achievement, is intended to measure students’ knowledge and skills in STAAR-tested subject areas and for high schools, graduates’ readiness for college, a career, or the military. The second domain, school progress, measures growth in one of two ways using students’ STAAR scores (whichever is higher), namely the academic growth of individual students from one year to the next or their performance relative to other students in peer districts with similar proportions of economically disadvantaged students. The third domain, closing the gaps, measures the performance of student subgroups, based on race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English language proficiency, receipt of special education services, and mobility. Components in this domain include targets for student achievement domain scores, proficiency and growth on STAAR in reading and mathematics, 4-year graduation rates, and college/career/military readiness. For each district (and campus next year), an overall score and corresponding letter grade is calculated based on two of the three domains, either student achievement or school progress (whichever is higher) at 70 percent, and closing the gaps at 30 percent. Additional caveats apply when assigning an overall letter grade to districts and/or campuses with a grade of D or F in one or more domains. Districts also have the autonomy to develop a local accountability system within certain parameters to use in place of the A-F model, pending review and approval at the state level.”

What will these rankings — good or bad — mean for schools?

“These letter grades reflect not only the state Legislature’s effort to quantify district and campus performance, largely based on students’ scores on STAAR in tested subject areas, but also a larger national trend to increasingly hold educators accountable for student achievement using snapshot measures of what students know and are able to do. Although these letter grades are intended to provide the public with more information about the quality of school districts and campuses in Texas, any indicator of quality that is meaningful to parents and community stakeholders and actionable for educators should be based on measures of the 21st century knowledge and skills that students need to be successful after high school. What useful information can a district or campus letter grade of A to F, which is based largely on students’ scores on a multiple-choice test such as STAAR, provide to a parent about whether his or her child is developing important skills such as how to apply critical thinking skills to solve problems, work collaboratively on a team, or effectively use technology, just to name a few? How should a community member interpret letter grades as a measure of performance when comparing one district or campus to another, especially when districts are allowed to develop their own local accountability systems? To what extent do letter grades provided actionable data to educators such that they can develop plans for continuous improvement? These are only a few of the questions that should be asked if letter grades are supposed to measure and communicate to the public whether districts and campuses are effective in ways that matter.”

Some people are critical of the ranking system. What could the state do instead? What do parents and communities wish to see in school rankings?

“The A-F Accountability model assumes that district and campus performance must be quantified and labeled accordingly in order to hold educators accountable for ensuring all children receive a high-quality education. Furthermore, it assumes that letter grades communicate meaningful information to the public about performance beyond what data districts and campuses can provide. If the broader objective for assigning letter grades is to determine how well districts and campuses prepare students to be successful in the future, it would seem to make sense that local educators, parents, community members and others should decide what constitutes preparedness. However, if holding low-performing districts and campuses accountable is really the purpose, developing local accountability systems negates the ability to compare them relative to one another. It seems that the larger question is which of these is most important. The intended use of any indicator of quality should be clearly articulated before trying to determine what is a valid, reliable measure.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.”