Talk of Texas public education — its perceived failures and possible solutions — filled the halls and chambers of the Capitol this year. Significant additional funding for schools did not result from any of these conversations.

Three policy changes teed up the chance for the state to make some significant public education shifts.

First, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Achievement changed to an online format, with more writing and open-ended questions. Second, the state’s metrics for its A-F accountability ratings of campuses changed. Third, in the same year that school districts expect to see lower accountability ratings, the governor is speaking across the state on the failures of public schools and the need to allow parents to send their tax dollars to private schools. 

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series exploring the STAAR test and its impact on Texas education.

Some of the changes could be anticipated — education code encourages regular updates to the rating system and testing.

However, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said she’s never seen changes to both the test and accountability metrics in the same year in her 20-plus years in education.  

Classrooms are becoming almost as politicized as the Capitol itself, according to a number of North Texas educators and policymakers. Rising controversies over the success of the public school system and an increased push for vouchers have some educators wondering if state testing is a tool in a political game, while some community members and policy makers insist testing data is useful for indicating which schools need improvement and investment. 

This year, these questions go hand in hand. As Fort Worth ISD analyzes results from STAAR testing and accountability ratings, when they are released, issued by the Texas Education Agency, Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to call a special session that he says will result in a voucher program for Texas families. 

Educators in Tarrant County are concerned about how to stretch their budgets to make up for the state failing to increase school funding in the legislative session. Many teachers fear that public sentiment about lower ratings resulting from a changed test and grading system can result in an even greater loss of funds.

A changing test, a moving accountability target

Sitting on a call with state education commissioner Mike Morath and other superintendents across the state, Ramsey pondered whether upcoming changes are fair for students.

Morath made it clear: The accountability system is changing. It is probable that districts can have higher student achievement rates than last year — or even the same rates — but their A-F rating will decrease.

“That is a very difficult thing to wrap our heads around,” Ramsey said. “That students might actually be doing better, but that ultimate grade that your local school gets may go down. And that’s counterintuitive to us.”

The letter grade schools will receive in September has a lot to do with the public’s perception of how well schools are educating students, Ramsey said.

Business leaders are trying to rally for a better system.

Chris Wallace, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, said the bulk of local business leaders see the STAAR test as a single test on a single day and don’t believe the scores adequately reflect the entirety of a school’s performance enough to influence its rating.

A better accountability metric would include safety, teacher training, parental engagement, community engagement and workforce preparedness, among other factors, he said.

“Unfortunately, they’re not graded, really, on those types of activities,” Wallace said. “They’re graded by one test. And we see it broader than that. It’s got to be broader than that.”

Previously, accountability ratings considered student achievement, growth and closing the gap — or how well students in special populations are improving. Achievement and growth made up 70% of the score, with STAAR scores making up 40% of the achievement domain. Those areas will still be considered, but measured differently.

The growth category helped Fort Worth ISD’s rating improve from a C to a B in the 2022-23 school year.

Under the new model, several big changes can impact scores. For example, under the closing the gaps category, schools no longer will be scored based on how all at-risk groups improve, but only those with the lowest scores in the previous year.

Additionally, college admissions and military enlistees will no longer count towards the College, Career and Military Readiness score. Rather, the state will look at numbers of students passing Advanced Placement exams, industry-based certifications and dual credit courses.

The STAAR test will still play a large role in determining scores.

One public education policy legislators can agree on is that the accountability system needs reforms, Patrick Brophey, chief operating officer for the North Texas Commission, said. The problem is figuring out what needs reforming.

“But by and large, there is agreement that there’s too much emphasis put on the STAAR test, that there are metrics that could be weighed a bit more evenly in order to fully understand the whole health and the success of the school,” he said.

Changes to the accountability system were always going to come because they’re part of the law, Ed Trust State Director for Texas Jonathan Feinstein said. He doesn’t think the changes are happening for malicious reasons.

“We’re having a conversation right now in Texas about what we want to do with our taxpayer dollars,” Feinstein said. “If state policymakers are willing to have a conversation about the kinds of choices that parents and families and students should have outside of the public system — especially for those families and students whose needs may not be met or who are currently underserved by the system — we owe it to ourselves and those families to make sure that in our public schools are equipped with the resources to meet the needs of those same families.”

Is the data needed?

Parents and their children wait for doors to open Aug. 14 for the first day of school at T.A. Sims Elementary School, 3500 Crenshaw Ave. The campus hosted media for its first day of school activities. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Ale Checka teaches middle school English in Fort Worth ISD. She makes a distinction between tests that help educators understand what students have learned, and tests made for policymakers to shape decisions. 

STAAR is a test for policymakers, she said.

Checka prefers the MAP test created by the national testing group NWEA because it gives teachers data throughout the school year. STAAR results aren’t released until after the student finishes the school year.

“[The STAAR test] is not something in my entire career that has ever been anything that adds to my instruction,” Checka said. “It’s very important for somebody like the superintendent or legislator to look at a macro thing, but it’s wild to suck up that much instructional time for something that is not adding instruction or relevant data while the student is still there.”

According to the Charles Butt Foundation, only 16% of teachers in Texas believe the STAAR test “effectively reflects student learning.”

But people still want to know how schools are performing, and parents want to see their children’s data. State Board of Education District 11 member Pat Hardy, who represents Fort Worth, said she thinks it’s good for parents to have testing data. 

However, she doesn’t think the district should put so much of an emphasis on the testing.

Feinstein of the Ed Trust said the data the STAAR test provides may not be perfect — no single assessment can tell an entire story — but it’s still needed to have conversations about educational equity.

Data that shows how well students master knowledge they need is absolutely essential, he said. Ed Trust looks at other data points, like other forms of standardized testing, but only the STAAR test is administered across the state.

“[STAAR] enables us to have conversations across schools, across school districts, and, really, across our entire state about what’s working,” Feinstein said. The data helps show what needs improvement, what’s working and where are more resources needed. 

But Sandra Vargas, a parent at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Fort Worth ISD, doesn’t think the districts are putting the emphasis on the test. Rather, the state is.

Vargas believes the test is a fair way to assess how students perform in school. But, it’s also not the most important part of her child’s education. 

“I still don’t put a lot of value in what the STAAR test will tell me because I get to see them all year, and I get to see the progress that they’re making,” Vargas said.

Andrea Arabie, whose students attend Benbrook Elementary School in Fort Worth ISD, agrees with Vargas — there is too much emphasis on the test. She prefers to see the MAP test results, because getting them throughout the year allows her to track how her boys are doing.

Arabie does want to see the STAAR scores in the district improve. But, she knows parents have to be involved in that work, too. 

“We need to, as parents, be more involved, and be more outspoken,” she said. “Be a voice that plays a role, especially down in Austin during these sessions. That could just be sending an e-mail.”

When it comes to local STAAR performance, Wallace said the business community knows there’s always room for improvement — but business leaders are not completely focused on a particular grade or subject.

Instead, Wallace said, business leaders are asking questions like: What resources are being placed in school? How can businesses work with the new superintendent? 

Education is important for the future of the workforce, he said.

“We need to look at the whole picture right? Not just public schools, but perhaps charter schools and private schools as well,” Wallace said.

Politicizing the classroom

Brophey of the North Texas Commission said he isn’t sure there is a direct, orchestrated effort between the new testing, accountability changes and passing vouchers. But these simultaneous shifts have created an interesting legislative session where a lot of discussions circled back to accountability, he said. 

Measuring accountability and standardized assessments have roots in trying to improve educational equity, Feinstein said.

“For a very long time in this country, and in this state as well, we had very little reliable data to shine a light on the fact that our systems had large achievement gaps — by race, by ethnicity, by family income, by every kind of different variable that we could identify,” he said.

Those in classrooms are more sure about the ties between recent state policies and the push for vouchers.

Schools are under-resourced and underfunded, Checka said. It’s not just a Fort Worth ISD problem — and Checka said people should turn to the governor.

Despite pushing hard for a state voucher system, his efforts to date have failed in the face of pushback from rural Republicans and Democrats across the state. 

“I don’t tell the governor how to do his job,” Checka said. “I don’t presume that I know how to run the state of Texas. But there are a lot of degrees that I went and got. I have a master’s degree in literature. I have another master’s degree in education. That’s a lot of time and trouble that I have spent on perfecting my craft, pushing myself to be more effective, to be better.”

Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angelica Ramsey talks to students A’Monii Anderson, left, and Justice Collins, right, on Aug. 14 at T.A. Sims Elementary School. Ramsey visited the elementary school on its first day of classes for the 2023-2024 school year. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Ramsey agreed that public perception of schools over STAAR scores matters — and can impact policy.

“In a time where we have a push to send public dollars to private institutions, and an overall narrative that’s anti-public education, to change the accountability system where they know that it’s so complicated that folks won’t quite understand that you can have students actually doing better, scoring higher on their tests, but their school go from maybe an A to a B or an A to a D — our public sentiment about schools is going to hang on that letter grade,” Ramsey said. “And the narrative under that saying, ‘Oh no, but kids did just as well or better’ is going to be completely lost.”

However, Ramsey said, she still knows the district has to answer to the community on test scores.

“Data should be used to inform, and it should be used to assist,” Ramsey said. “It shouldn’t be a hammer and it shouldn’t be to cast blame. And we really need the entire community’s support to change the trajectory of education in Fort Worth.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at

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