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Austin-area school districts want a Travis County judge to block changes to how Texas grades them

 The Leander ISD administration building
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Leander ISD is one of dozens of school districts suing the Texas education commissioner.

A Travis County judge is considering whether to block the Texas Education Agency from making changes to the A-F accountability rating system, which evaluates school performance.

Seven school districts, including Del Valle ISD, sued Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in August. Since then, more than 90 districts have joined the lawsuit as either plaintiffs or intervenors. Central Texas districts that are part of the suit include Pflugerville ISD, Hays CISD, Leander ISD, Bastrop ISD and Elgin ISD.

During a hearing in the 419th Civil District Court on Tuesday, attorneys for the school districts argued Morath violated the Texas Education Code because he did not give adequate notice about changes to the accountability system. The districts are asking the judge to prevent TEA from using the new rating system to evaluate the 2022-2023 school year.

The districts anticipate their grades will drop under the new system, even if they’ve performed better than the previous year. They argue a drop in letter grades could reduce student enrollment and state funding, lower property values and potentially leave them at risk for state intervention if campuses get bad grades for too many years in a row.

One of the main changes districts are concerned about has to do with how the TEA evaluates high schools. While elementary and middle schools are solely evaluated on how students perform on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, high schools are graded on a combination of STAAR scores, graduation rates, and how many students are considered college and career ready. To meet this criteria, students can, for example, get a certain score on the SAT, take college credit courses while in high school or earn an industry-based certification.

Previously, if 60% of students were deemed college and career ready, districts could earn an A in this area. But the TEA has been planning to increase the threshold to 88%.

Superintendents said at a court hearing Tuesday that they are OK with meeting higher standards for their students. What they are not OK with is that the new threshold will be applied to students who graduated in 2022, before the districts knew about this change. And, they added, they could get lower grades even if students are performing better than in the previous year.

Kingsville ISD Superintendent Cecilia Reynolds-Perez said she anticipates schools in the South Texas district could drop one to two letter grades under the new accountability system.

“It’s very deflating," she said. "Our teachers and our students have worked so hard, especially after COVID."

Reynolds-Perez and other superintendents said it's unprecedented for the TEA to overhaul how it grades schools while also introducing a new version of the STAAR test. Students took the redesigned test during the 2022-2023 school year, and nearly all students were required to take it online for the first time.

“Never in my 35-year history have I seen the test change, the rating system change and the platform in which the students test change so all three were done all in one year,” she said.

Leander ISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing also testified that all these changes are not occurring in a vacuum. Rather, they’re taking place when many districts feel public education is under attack.

Attorneys from the Texas Attorney General’s Office, who were representing TEA, argued the school districts did not have standing to sue Commissioner Morath. They also tried to establish that districts did have enough notice about updates to the accountability system, known as the A-F Refresh. (The AG attorneys declined to talk to the press.)

But lawyers for the school districts countered that the agency did not share specific changes in time and missed the deadline to adopt the rules for the accountability system by Aug. 15.

Witnesses for the state also confirmed the TEA missed that legally required deadline, but said the accountability manual will be out later this fall. The agency announced last month it was delaying the release of the ratings for the 2022-2023 school year because it needed more time to ensure the data was taking the impact of the pandemic into account.

Travis County Judge Catherine A. Mauzy is expected to rule sometime after Oct. 20 and before the TEA releases the ratings in November. Nick Maddox, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said he's hopeful Mauzy will block TEA from releasing the ratings.

“If the judge does not halt the rollout of these ratings and they do roll out, it will actually be too late to take legal recourse,” he said. “So, once the cat is out of the bag, there’s no legal recourse.”

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