Photo by Rasy Ran

“We believe in strong accountability, but see no evidence that the A-F grading system will actually improve performance or help students.”

These words lead a Dallas ISD school board resolution that will be voted on tonight. It opposes the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) preliminary A-F grading system and legislation that would create school choice vouchers, and favors an increase in allotted state funds for schools. It wouldn’t be the first district; as of Wednesday, 427 districts had passed similar resolutions. But with 157,000-plus students, Dallas would definitely be the largest district to stand up to the state.

Texas superintendents have made it exceedingly clear what they think of the state’s new grading system for schools and school districts. Some school districts have created videos explaining the system’s problems.

In our neighborhood, for example, Kramer Elementary, which received all possible distinctions according to TEA’s assessments this past year, received a “C” for its test scores under the the A-F system. Withers Elementary, which also has a great TEA track record, received a “B.” That TEA’s new grading system doesn’t correspond to its current system is one of its major problems, opponents say.

Proponents, however, say that Texas public schools don’t want to be held accountable for their poor efforts to educate poor children. The Dallas Morning News published an editorial stating that school districts are “running scared from an accountability system that’s still evolving,” which “is no way to make a credible case or win support, especially as parents try to decide where their children will get the best education.”

Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze had a similar take, calling opponents of the system the “mediocrity lobby,” and telling superintendents that “if a report comes out showing that you are preparing a substantial number of your students for prison … screaming that you are the victim of a conspiracy to subvert public education sounds a lot like hiding the ball.” He credits the creators and supporters of A-F and education reform with knowing that “the only shot a poor kid has in this world is to somehow learn and adopt values of diligence and difficult attainment, and the only way to learn those values is by facing reality head-on.”

What schools should do, the Morning News editorial states, is “analyze the results and use them to drive better performance.”

“A-F is not about stigmatizing schools but about creating better-educated students,” the editorial continues. “After all, that’s what grades are supposed to be about. A quality school gives students the scores they deserve; if that’s, say, a D in math, the accompanying message is, ‘You aren’t there yet. But staff will help get you there.’ ”

One flaw in this “analyze vs. stigmatize” argument, opponents say, is the second part of the proposed DISD resolution — school vouchers. Trustees also will vote on whether to oppose “any program that diverts public tax dollars to private entities, homeschool students, or parents with little or no academic or financial accountability to the state, taxpayers, or local communities.”

If Texas’ public schools are receiving a letter grade based on their efforts — and a faulty one at that, as some would argue — then how can school districts view the accountability system simply as analysis, when Texas’ governor, lieutenant governor and some state legislators are pushing to give funds to private schools and homeschoolers who don’t face the same scrutiny?

Texas superintendents argue that they aren’t shying away from accountability. What they want is “the establishment of a comprehensive accountability system that looks beyond high-stakes, multiple-choice exams to meaningful assessments.”

Proponents of A-F might see this as a cop out, but evaluation experts are on the public schools’ side. Texas schools need accountability systems that are “aimed at improving, not just proving” and “should reflect the complexity of schools,” says Annie Wright, director of evaluation at SMU’s Center On Research and Evaluation (CORE).

“Educators and researchers have authentic accountability and assessment methods that are truly multi-dimensional and not funneled into a single high-stakes score, and that measure the metrics that matter most, not just the ones that lend themselves to easy data collection,” Wright says. The A-F system “will likely cause more harm than good by demoralizing hard working teachers and staff, and confusing parents and communities.”

Wright, a Dallas ISD graduate, knows this firsthand — she now has three children attending DISD schools.

“Don’t insult our intelligence by saying that complex stories need to be simplified in order for parents to understand it,” Wright says. “Instead, show us what’s really going on in our schools by committing to full, authentic, appropriate, mixed-methods, humanist accountability.”

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