Fifteen minutes into an Oct. 26 school board meeting, Crowley ISD Superintendent Michael McFarland announced a victory for his district.
A state district judge in Travis County sided with his district in a lawsuit seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from issuing A-F ratings for schools and districts under its revised accountability system. A trial was scheduled for Feb. 12.
“We came out on the right side,” said McFarland, whose district was among seven school systems that first filed the lawsuit.
Crowley ISD is not alone, as other Fort Worth-area school district leaders expressed their support of the temporary injunction. TEA plans to appeal the decision, which it described as disregarding state laws.
“We simply want to know the rules of the game before we play it,” McFarland said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report. “I appreciate the judge for seeing that we simply didn’t have the information we needed, as required by law.”
Every year, the state assigns an A-F letter grade to each district and campus. TEA revised the accountability system as part of a periodic refresh called for in state law.
A-F grades are issued based on students’ performance on the state standardized test, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR; year-to-year academic growth; graduation rates; and how well schools prepare students for college, a career or the military.
A point of contention for districts was how the state determined to measure career readiness. High schools need to have at least 88% of their graduates pass an Advanced Placement exam, earn an industry-based certification or take a dual-credit course to receive an A in the college, career and military readiness score. Previously, it was 60%.
Ratings were already delayed so state education officials could account for lower than expected post-pandemic student outcomes. Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the district court that ratings were planned to be issued sometime after Nov. 1.
The update drew criticism from school districts over what they see as a lack of transparency from the state. More than 100 districts sued TEA and claimed the agency did not notify them of the changes as required by state law as well as its plans to reissue ratings for the 2022-23 school year under the revised formulas.
In mid-October, TEA’s lawyers told a judge that districts do not have standing to sue and that school officials received enough notice about the refresh.
“I find today’s ruling encouraging, as it upholds the principle of fairness. While we believe in accountability, it’s essential that our teachers and students are aware of the rules before the game begins,” Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said in a statement.
In the injunction order, Judge Catherine Mauzy of the 419th District Court said the newly revised A-F system was “unlawful.” Mauzy, a Democrat, also said the revision would cause irreparable harm to all Texas school districts.
“As we have consistently stated, the decision to overhaul the format of STAAR exams and change the A-F rating system using those STAAR results at the same time does not align with the state’s tradition of providing a moratorium as a grace period to adjust to new standards,” Northwest ISD said in a statement to the Report.
Lake Worth ISD was among the Tarrant County districts that sued TEA. After Lake Worth ISD trustees joined the lawsuit, Superintendent Rose Mary Neshyba told community members she believes in accountability, but expectations need to be realistic, accurately measured and communicated in a timely fashion.
“The anticipated changes to the A-F system will not tell our community an accurate story about the growth of our students and the academic improvements we have made this past year. What would be gains will appear as setbacks, and this is simply unjust,” Neshyba said in September.
TEA officials called the A-F rating system a positive force in Texas public education, and educators and legislators have had constructive conversations about how schools are graded. The injunction affects more than just the school board members and superintendents who agreed to join the lawsuit, the agency said in a statement.
“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,” TEA said.
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