Three Texas school districts face state penalties after 2019 A-F grades released

Texas Tribune News

San Antonio ISD's Ogden Academy failed to meet academic standards, but has a temporary reprieve from state penalties.
San Antonio ISD’s Ogden Academy failed to meet academic standards, but has a temporary reprieve from state penalties.
Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Three Texas school districts — including the state’s largest — will likely be forced to shut down their chronically underperforming schools or submit to state takeover, based on annual state ratings released Thursday morning.

Houston ISD, Shepherd ISD and Snyder ISD each have at least one school that failed state ratings for five or more years in a row, subjecting them to bruising state penalties created in 2015. School superintendents will be allowed to appeal their ratings by mid-September, and final decisions will be out by the end of the year.

If the appeals do not work, this would be the first time the state has penalized any school districts for repeated low academic performance.

While Houston ISD’s Kashmere High School, the state’s longest underperforming school, soared from an F to a C this year, Wheatley High School failed to meet state academic standards for the seventh year in a row.

This is the second year that Texas has awarded letter grades to school districts, and the first year for schools, replacing a previous pass/fail system. (Schools last year received numeric scores that could easily be translated into grades.) The grades are intended to represent students’ academic performance, based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates.

For superintendents and principals, the pressure to get a good report card is high: Texas has increased the stakes of the accountability system in recent years, promising harsh penalties for schools and districts that repeatedly underperform.

Schools that fail to meet state academic standards for more than four years in a row will be forcibly shuttered or their school districts will be taken over by the state.

This year, further raising those stakes, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath instituted a policy change to count a “D” grade as “unacceptable” performance, which critics argue will only increase the number of schools facing state penalties.

Last year, Houston ISD was one of 92 school districts that received a waiver from state ratings, because of the damaging effects of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey on students’ academic performance. That waiver saved it last year. No similar waivers were offered this year.

Snyder ISD, in West Texas, and Shepherd ISD, north of Houston, were also at risk of state takeover, each with at least one school that had been failing for four years. Snyder’s junior high school along with Shepherd’s elementary and intermediate schools received their fifth consecutive failing ratings this year.

The state offered school districts a life raft: Those that handed the management of their underperforming schools to a nonprofit, university or charter group could get a two-year pause from sanctions.

Without that life raft, at least six districts — Ector County ISD, Lubbock ISD, Hearne ISD, Austin ISD, Beaumont ISD and San Antonio ISD — would have been in trouble. Ogden Academy, one of San Antonio ISD’s elementary schools, received its sixth F in a row this year. But the district’s leaders handed over control of curriculum, hiring and other duties to the Relay Graduate School of Education, giving Ogden more time to improve.

Midland ISD’s Travis Elementary School, in West Texas, also received a fifth consecutive low rating, but it received an exception from the state, because it will partner with IDEA, a charter district, in 2020.

But Houston, Snyder and Shepherd ISDs did not enter into a partnership and subsequently failed to improve the performance of their schools. In Houston, community members effectively blocked the school board from using the law, arguing that giving nonprofits or charters control of their low-performing schools would privatize public education.

Even if all of Houston ISD’s schools had improved, the district was looking at likely state takeover due to its dysfunctional school board. A recent preliminary state investigation recommended state education officials take over Houston ISD’s elected school board, plagued by infighting and scandals for years, and replace it with an appointed board of managers.

The move to letter grade ratings, and the higher stakes attached to them, is extremely controversial, especially among many educators.

They argue that letter grades are overly simplistic measures of a long list of complex metrics and mislead parents about the quality of a school or district. They also dislike how much the system is based on students’ standardized test scores, the only consistent statewide evaluation, but one widely mistrusted to accurately depict whether students are learning.

Despite the criticism, lawmakers did little to adjust how the state assesses school districts in the legislative session that wrapped up in May.

State officials have argued that the letter grades are more accessible for parents who want to know how well their child’s school is doing, and that they allow the state to better keep tabs on underperforming schools. The state also has updated a public website intended to present the ratings in a more easily digestible way, including new tools that allow for comparisons between schools and districts.

“All of these tools are designed to provide as much transparency to administrators and school leaders as well as to parents and members of the public,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said at a recent media roundtable.

A higher percentage of school districts that received letter grades were awarded As and Bs this year, compared to last year. A smaller percentage of districts received Cs, Ds and Fs.

The grades for schools and districts are determined by ratings in three categories: student achievement, school progress, and closing the gaps. Those categories measure how students perform on state tests, how much those scores have improved and how well schools are educating their most disadvantaged students.