EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — Report card time generates a mix of fear, anticipation, and even excitement among students. The same could be said for school officials when the Texas Education Agency released letter grades for Texas public school districts Aug. 15, but with a few differences.
The new system awards an A-F letter grade to school districts based on student achievement, school progress, and closing the gaps. The last one measures how well schools are doing at addressing learning in unique student populations such as minority, special education, and English as a second language students.
Marble Falls Independent School District scored a B, while Burnet Consolidated Independent School District and Llano ISD each earned a C. District officials, however, want people to look beyond the the letter grade.
“To boil a school district down to a letter grade by a test on one day isn’t really an accurate way to show what’s going on in those schools,” said Wes Cunningham, MFISD assistant superintendent. “How they get to A, B, C, D, or F — behind the scenes the formulas are very complex, but most of it comes from the (STAAR) test.”
The STAAR, or State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, is a standardized exam the state uses to measure student achievement and progress starting in the third grade. Over the years, many people have come to oppose standardized testing or advocate that these exams not be counted as much in determining a student’s academic success.
As the TEA sends out district and, eventually, campus report cards with letter grades heavily based on the STAAR, school officials are pushing back.
“I am frustrated by the A-F grading systems because it tries to define a school district and learning by a single letter grade when there is so much more to educating children,” BCISD Superintendent Keith McBurnett said in a statement. “My message to our staff is, ‘We still have work to do,’ and that is based on our belief of continuous improvement.
“I have challenged all of us to give an ‘extra inch’ each day to move the needle on student achievement, but that will be based on multiple measures and not just the narrow indicator of a single-day performance of our students,” he added.
McBurnett’s criticism of the state’s accountability system has merit. As Cunningham explained, these school ratings are based on STAAR test scores, though the high school ratings also take into consideration college, career, and military readiness as well as the dropout rate.
“It’s a very narrow focus of what schools really do,” Cunningham pointed out.
While academic achievement is a big part of education, there’s more that happens inside schools that STAAR exams don’t reveal. A school district, Cunningham said, focuses on the entire student.
“I think there is much more to Marble Falls schools than what you see in this letter grade,” he said. “As a district, we’re looking at their social and emotional learning, looking at learning opportunities in areas they don’t get tested on. We’re concerned about social, behavioral … the whole child well-being. It’s not just that academic piece — that’s important — but these others area are as well.”
MFISD staff and teachers take student academic achievement seriously, the assistant superintendent said, but a well-rounded education also includes activities such as choir, marching band, athletics, FFA, fine arts, University Interscholastic League academic competitions, and clubs.
This past year, students at both Burnet and Marble Falls high schools built tiny homes in building trades classes. The skills those students learned, such as applying geometry in a real-world situation and working as a team toward a common goal, will shape them for life beyond high school.
Those are the things McBurnett believes a simple letter grade by the TEA misses.
“The reality is the STAAR test cannot measure the value of students engaging in pre-engineering problem solving in grades 3 through 12, building a tiny home while applying geometrical concepts, learning Mandarin Chinese, earning five state championships in UIL and FFA competitions, learning to speak in front of a group of peers, participating in a Socratic seminar to defend a point of view, welding two pieces of metal together, preparing and hosting a four-course meal, utilizing Google to efficiently research a topic, or participating in a team sport or fine arts ensemble,” McBurnett stated. “Simply put, learning is more than a letter grade.”
Yet, some might point out, that’s exactly what a school gives to students.
The difference, according to Cunningham, is scope.
“When we talk about student achievement, our teachers know how their students are doing. They’re constantly assessing students,” he said. “It’s not just one test on one day. It’s over a period of time and looking at the student’s work during that time.”
Districts can’t discount TEA ratings as they are part of the state accountability system, but looking below the surface of that grade reveals a possible factor in student achievement.
Across the state, only 16 percent of the 742 public school districts earned an A, followed by 45 percent receiving a B, and 31 percent getting a C. Only 6 percent received a D with 1.2 percent getting an F.
What’s interesting about those numbers is that when the percentage of economically disadvantaged students is examined, there’s a relationship between that number and a district’s letter grade. In the school districts earning an A, only 31 percent of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged. In the B school districts, that percentage climbs to 50 percent. In C districts, it’s even higher at 69 percent.
It jumps to 77 percent in districts with a D grade and up to 82 percent in districts that received an F.
However, local school officials aren’t making excuses for not getting an A but asking people to use these ratings as just one part of school assessment.
Cunningham said if people want to know how a school is doing academically, there’s a more direct route.
“Ask the principal,” he said. “They know better than anyone what’s going on on their campus.”
Or, volunteer at a school and get a first-hand look.
While they might not like the idea of a rating system based on one standardized test, school staff and administrators use STAAR test results and TEA data as tools for helping students.
“We are not satisfied as a district until every student is performing at the highest levels possible and is well-prepared to do whatever they chose to do in their future,” McBurnett added. “We have a strong focus on continuous improvement and will utilize the data gleaned from the state assessment to inform our practices, but we will not make preparing for standardized tests our sole focus because there is more to education than a bubble test.”
Cunningham concurred that administrators, staff, and faculty are always working to improve their skills so they can provide the best educational opportunities for students.
“I am proud of the work our teachers and students do,” he said. “I have so much promise for the coming school year for all the hard work our teachers have put in this summer learning new ways to help students.”
Probably the best way to assess a district is examining the work between teacher and student, which is hard to see outside the classroom.
McBurnett talked about how he challenges the entire staff to give that “extra inch” each day for the students.
“I personally know the time and effort that our teachers and principals invest in helping children grow academically,” he said. “Whether a student comes to school ready to learn or not, we believe all children can learn, and we are committed to helping all students grow to the greatest extent possible.”