AUSTIN (KXAN) – A Travis County judge on Thursday ordered the Texas Education Agency not to release its annual A-F school ratings after more than 100 school districts sued the education commissioner over the anticipated changes to how the scores will be calculated.

The districts, including Dallas ISD and Pflugerville ISD, allege the state agency and its top leader did not provide adequate notice, under Texas law, of changes to how the 2022-23 A-F rating will be calculated. The school leaders testified in a hearing earlier this month the changes had the potential to lower scores for campuses even if performance improved.

The judge, Catherine Mauzy, stated the school districts made sufficient showing the education commissioner’s implementation of the A-F accountability system for 2022-23 school year “violates Texas law and would cause irreparable harm” to all school districts in the state.

TEA officials said in a statement the agency will appeal this decision immediately.

This ruling completely disregards the laws of this state and for the foreseeable future, prevents any A-F performance information from being issued to help millions of parents and educators improve the lives of our students. The A-F system has been a positive force in Texas public education, supporting improved outcomes for students across the state, especially those most vulnerable.
There have been many constructive conversations about the methodology with districts and among legislators. Though about 10% of our school system leaders disagreed with the methods used in A-F enough to file this lawsuit, the complete absence of public performance information means that 100% of our school systems cannot take actions based on these ratings, stunting the academic growth of millions of Texas kids.

Texas Education Agency

“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,” Leander ISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing said before testifying on Oct. 10.

The A-F ratings were originally set to be released to the public on Sept. 28, but agency officials pushed back the release to November saying they wanted more time to analyze growth data. 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.

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 Oct. 10 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 testified.

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.”

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.

Attorneys representing TEA declined to comment to KXAN after the hearing. 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.