Strong accountability and consistent assessments help make the grade in Texas

Photo by Shannan Muskopf

Ignorance is bliss, or so they say.

But blissful ignorance is unacceptable when it comes to Texas schools. Of course, no one wants to believe that their schools are “failing” or even that they have room to improve. But by weakening accountability and assessment measures, we’re only kicking the can down the road while turning a blind eye to the issues in our state’s education system.

Last session, legislators took important strides to improve accountability by implementing the A-F rating system, which assigns letter grades to districts and campuses based on their performance. In this digital age, misconceptions about A-F ratings got halfway around the world before the truth had the chance to get its pants on. This is a system that hasn’t even been fully implemented yet, and it’s already been written off by many. (And you don’t have to take my word for it. If you would like to see how your local schools rate, check out the Texas Tribune’s comprehensive database, the Texas Public Schools Explorer.)

A-F ratings can help give us a clearer picture as to what is actually happening in our schools if done correctly. The first crack at it wasn’t perfect — first cracks often aren’t — but instead of calling on lawmakers to trash it and start over (yet again), why not take the opportunity of the 85th legislative session to give lawmakers bold and clear guidance so they can build a solid foundation for the years to come?

We could start with House Bill 22.

State Rep. Dan Huberty’s HB 22 has noble goals but falls short of providing meaningful improvements to the A-F system. My primary concerns are the absence of sufficient emphasis on student achievement and growth and its removal of clarity in reporting. Texans should be concerned with the current version written, especially after a peppering of floor amendments. If the Senate considers the bill, lawmakers should weight outcomes over inputs and retain clear indicators of overall school performance.

Senate Bill 2051, state Sen. Larry Taylor’s A-F bill, gets a lot more right, but could be better. Specifically, I take issue with any accountability system that does not weight student outcomes equally for all students regardless of length of enrollment. The bill also needs to increase focus on results instead of inputs and to place a proper emphasis on student growth.

Our legislators are also taking a hard look at the way we assess our students via testing. Several have proposed getting rid of statewide assessments altogether in favor of locally adopted tests.

These proposals would strip the state’s ability to maintain the same testing standards statewide. This legislation is a reaction to a problem not created by the test itself but instead by adults who want to see its demise.

We need a consistent, across-the-board assessment instrument aligned to state standards. Simply passing the baton from the state to districts takes us nowhere fast. Common measures of performance are vital for the state to maintain a productive role in school effectiveness.

Much more frightening, however, are efforts to alter the state’s assessment standards yet again. This slow erosion of assessment and accountability continues in HB 515, which is currently pending in a senate committee and removes critical social studies exams. Calls to limit the amount of testing are reasonable and should be met with a full understanding of the testing expectations placed on our students. Meaningful assessment changes should begin with a thoughtful audit of assessments administered by the state, districts, and campuses before the legislature starts cutting assessments.

In short, running scared from a system that’s still evolving is not the right choice for Texas. Improving it won’t be easy, but there are a few proposals on the table that, with thoughtful and deliberate changes, could go a long way to move Texas forward.

If we’re going to do this thing right, it’s time we use our chisel to make meaningful tweaks rather than sledgehammering all that we’ve accomplished so far.

Michael Williams

Chairman, Texas Aspires