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Texas school districts sue state education commissioner over changes to A-F accountability system

There is an empty hallway at Del Valle ISD High School. There's a red banner that says the high school received a B grade from the Texas Education Agency during the 2018-2019 school year.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Del Valle ISD has joined a handful of school districts in a lawsuit challenging the state's rollout of new accountability standards.

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Seven Texas school districts filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging state education officials' rollout of changes to the A-F accountability system, which grades their performance each year. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is named as the defendant.

Nick Maddox, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said there is a lot at stake for school districts that do not get good grades. The state can intervene if a school district or one of its campuses gets a failing grade for five consecutive years.

"If you are not performing well, the State of Texas has the option to come in and sort of exert local control over your district," he said.

That's currently playing out in the state's largest school district. The Texas Education Agency took control of Houston ISD in June after one high school repeatedly got a failing grade. The agency installed a new superintendent and replaced the school board with a board of managers.

Maddox said changes the Texas Education Agency is making to its accountability system are going to negatively affect districts' grades.

"TEA has stated in writing that, due to the change of the rubrics alone, school districts can expect to fall a letter grade or more," he said. "They can expect to see a worse grade even if your district, in reality, has performed better."

The lawsuit claims that if districts receive lower grades that will also negatively impact enrollment. That, in turn, will reduce the amount of funding they receive from the state.

"Additionally, lower performance ratings can adversely impact property values in school districts," the lawsuit stated.

KUT reached out to the TEA about the lawsuit, and a spokesperson said the agency does not comment on ongoing legal matters.

Why are grades going to drop?

The primary change expected to lower districts' grades has to do with how the TEA evaluates whether high schools are preparing students for life after graduation.

TEA is significantly raising the threshold districts must meet to earn an A when it comes to career, college and military readiness. Before, districts could earn the top grade if 60% of students were considered career and college ready. The TEA is now raising that threshold to 88% and will be applying it to students who graduated in 2022.

The superintendent of Del Valle ISD, one of the districts suing, said she has no problem with meeting higher standards, but she is concerned the agency is applying updated standards retroactively.

"They've been long graduated. We have no ability to have them meet this threshold. And these are, by the way, also the same students who were most impacted by COVID," Annette Tielle said. "So they had interrupted instruction for [career and technical education], dual credit — there just were a lot of issues."

Del Valle ISD is one of nearly 250 school districts that sent a letter to Commissioner Morath earlier this year asking the state to pause its plan for the "A-F Accountability Refresh."

The districts said applying the new criteria to students who have already graduated will create a "false narrative."

"No public relations campaign from the TEA will be adequate to combat the misperception that our schools are suddenly worse than they were last year," the letter said.

Democratic state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin also sent a letter in May on behalf of a bipartisan group of lawmakers concerned about changes to the rating system. She said it was like changing the rules of the game once it's over.

"This is like moving the goal post once the game has started — maybe even after the game is over — saying actually this was not the score, we're going to decide this was the way you should have played the game," she said, "and this is the new score."

She said school districts are rightfully concerned about the changes TEA is making "and rightfully expect that we have a more fair and more transparent accountability system."

Concerns about vouchers

Hinojosa said the TEA is making changes to the A-F system at the same time state leadership is pushing for school vouchers, which give families taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.

Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to call a special session this fall, with the goal of passing school voucher legislation. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Texas House blocked this type of program during the regular session.

"I do believe this is setting up our school districts to look bad right before we go into a special session on vouchers," Hinojosa said, "and our school districts and their leaders are expressing to me they believe the same."

Tielle said she's also concerned the new grades are coming out during the push for school vouchers.

"We are facing an accountability system that we know is going to detrimentally impact how districts are perceived by the community," she said. "So, this is a large concern."

Tielle added the TEA is changing the A-F criteria at the same time it has made major changes to the the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test. The tests play a big role in the grade districts and individual campuses receive. During the last school year, TEA introduced a new versionof the test and required nearly all students to take it online.

But Commissioner Morath has touted the changes to the accountability system in a video message to school board members released May 31. He said it was important to update the criteria, which has remained largely the same since 2017.

"We want to make sure we are setting higher and higher goals," he said.

What districts want

Maddox said none of the school districts his firm is representing are opposed to the new, higher standards.

"Every single school district that has joined our coalition, and every district I have talked to, is ready, willing, and able to comply with every single rating system issued by the state," he said.

Rather, he said, districts are arguing they did not receive adequate notice from the TEA about the changes to the A-F system.

"The Texas Education Code states that each school year, the Commissioner must provide a simple and accessible document that explains 'the accountability performance measures, methods, and procedures that will be applied for that school year,'" the lawsuit stated.

Ultimately, the lawsuit, alleges Morath is violating this law by releasing the new standards too late — and applying them retroactively.

"We are asking ... the judge to interpret the statute to say: 'TEA you can't do this,'" he said. "'You are able to change the rubric, but you can't do it now. You have to disclose it at the start of the school year.'"

Maddox said the districts are asking the TEA to keep their grades the same for another year before implementing the new grading criteria.

"That's all that districts are trying to do, is fairly meet the grading criteria on which they're being judged," he said.

Maddox added he expects more school districts to join the lawsuit.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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