Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show Del Valle ISD is participating in the lawsuit, but didn’t testify.
AUSTIN (KXAN) – Several Texas superintendents testified on Tuesday in a lawsuit requesting the Texas Education Commissioner not to release A-F school ratings this year.
The judge is expected to issue an order on the case before the end of the month.
The lawsuit, which more than 100 school districts across the state have joined, alleges the Texas Education Agency has not provided adequate notice of changes to how the 2022-23 A-F rating will be calculated.
“I think it is clear we have a unified front with a very similar argument that the commissioner has in our mind, broken the law and has to be accountable to that,” said Leander ISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing.
District leaders, including Superintendents from Kingsville ISD, Leander ISD, and Spring Branch ISD, testified Commissioner Mike Morath held Zoom meetings with districts in February and over the summer outlining the proposed “A-F refresh.”
But district leaders said there is still uncertainty around changes to how the state will calculate student progress under the new metrics, and the agency has yet to approve the accountability manual laying out the new methods.
TEA clarified during testimony that the proposed manual has been published but admitted it has not published or approved the final version of the accountability manual.
Gearing said in previous years, districts were “held harmless” on their accountability scores and given a transition year when the state began a new accountability system or made significant changes.
“This year, when we asked for that pause, and we asked several times. Can we have a phase-in year? Can we have a no-fault year while we work through these significant changes? And [Commissioner Morath] has definitively said no,” Gearing said.
On Sept. 12, TEA announced it would delay the annual release of A-F ratings. The agency said it wanted to analyze new data on student progress. Specifically, the agency said it was focusing on whether it should incorporate data from the 2021-22 school year in upcoming ratings.
But the agency said it expected to release the ratings in November.
Attorneys representing TEA declined to comment to KXAN. But in court, the agency’s legal team laid out the reasons for the timing of the A-F refresh, including hearing from the TEA employee who oversees accountability.
“We have been telling people it’s a five-year cycle – that 2023 will be the year we make changes. We have tried to as best as possible to give people a heads up,” TEA’s Associate Commissioner of Assessment and Reporting Iris Tian testified.
The TEA legal team also questioned whether districts could have made any changes to impact scores if they were given earlier notice.
Specifically, the defense made the point that the part of the score that considers college, career, and military readiness is based on the previous school year’s graduating class.
The case is playing out while Texas lawmakers reconvene for the third special session. This session will focus on education funding and Gov. Greg Abbott’s push to create an education savings account program.
The ESA program would allow parents to use state funds at private schools across the state.
“We certainly feel there is an attack on public education like never before. What we fear is that this is all playing out together to make it seem that Texas public schools across the state are failing,” Del Valle ISD Superintendent Dr. Annette Tielle, whose district is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The legal teams for both the school districts and TEA finished up testimony and closing arguments for the hearing on Tuesday.
What are the changes?
The A-F ratings are based on multiple factors — including graduation rates, the number of college, career, and military-ready students, and State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) results.
“The A-F system is designed to properly reflect how well our schools are meeting those high expectations, and the adjustments we are making this year will ensure it continues to serve as a tool for parents and educators to help our students,” Morath said in a statement.
District leaders testified on Tuesday that Morath told school leaders in February, 28% of all Texas schools would have lower ratings under the new metrics.
“When those ratings arbitrarily fall when nothing has changed on the campus: instruction is the same, the performance of the students is the same, but their academic rating is shifted that does affect how people make decisions, and that has implications economically,” Gearing said.
Under the newest methods of the A-F accountability rating, many high schools would need higher graduation rates and more students to be considered college, military, and career-ready, or CCMR, to maintain their campus scores.
The previous scales would have given a campus an A if 60% of its students were college, career, and military-ready. However, under the new metrics or “cut points,” a campus would need 88% of its students to be college, career and military-ready to get an A score.
Under the new rules, high schools would need a 98% graduation rate to get an A rating. Previously, a 96% graduation rate would have resulted in an A. Along with new metrics for judging A-F ratings, the grades will also factor in the results of the re-designed STAAR test.
According to TEA officials, before 2017, cut points were updated every year. But after HB 22 was passed that year, state law required the cut points and other indicators to be updated periodically — not necessarily annually. TEA officials said because of the law change, “cut points and indicators in the A-F system have remained largely unchanged since 2017.”