When the Texas Education Agency rolled out its new school accountability system earlier this year, supporters — including Education Commissioner Mike Morath — called it the “fairest ever.” But some school officials are skeptical.
“My concern with the word fair goes back to how highly correlated are grades with economic disadvantage,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District.
Woods is also the vice president of the Texas Association of School Administrators, which opposes the state’s new A through F rating system.
Before TEA released the 2018 ratings in August, Woods made a prediction: “Almost certainly schools with low letter grades will serve large populations of economically disadvantaged students.”
According to a Texas Public Radio analysis of TEA data, Woods was right.
Officially, only school districts received a letter grade this year. But TEA issued numerical scores for campuses that reflect the letter grades they’ll receive next year. And most schools that failed serve mostly low-income students.
Texas considers a student economically disadvantaged if they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. By that measurement, 70 percent of the schools rated by TEA serve mostly poor students. Yet more than 90 percent of schools receiving an F serve a student population that is more than 50 percent economically disadvantaged.
Almost half of the schools that failed are what the state considers high poverty, with more than 80 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
However, most high poverty schools didn’t fail. Just 6 percent did.
On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, most schools that serve mostly middle- and upper-income students got high grades from the state. Three out of four schools where at least 80 percent of students are middle and upper income got the equivalent of an A.
When asked about these findings, TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said: “There is not a strong relationship between student poverty and an overall A-F rating.”
She agreed that there is a correlation, but said it is moderate. She also emphasized a point Morath made when accountability ratings were released: hundreds of high poverty Texas schools earned As.
“We have proof points that with strong curriculum, with strong instructional support, that all children can achieve. Poverty is not destiny,” said Morath in August.
How We Got Here
In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed a law directing the Texas Education Agency to create an accountability system that rated schools and districts using A through F letter grades, rather than the existing pass/fail system.
The law drew widespread pushback from groups representing Texas educators. In the 2016-2017 school year, hundreds of school boards passed resolutions against A through F, arguing that the system was flawed because it relied heavily on standardized test scores.
In 2017, the Legislature responded to educators’ concerns by revising the law. The new version directed the Texas Education Agency to give more weight to academic growth, which measures how much a student learns in a year.
The new focus on growth is a large part of TEA’s argument that the system is fair. While research shows a strong link between poverty and achievement, no such link has been found between growth and family income.
Last year, a national study published by Stanford professor Sean Reardon found that poor school districts like Chicago Public Schools are just as likely to help kids catch up to grade level as wealthier school districts.
“If we want to measure how well the schools are doing in a community, we want to try to isolate the contribution of the schools themselves to kids learning, as opposed to if we want to just measure overall opportunities that kids have to learn in their whole lives: in their homes, in their neighborhoods and their early childhood as well as in the schools,” Reardon said in an interview with Texas Public Radio.
Why Does The Correlation Remain?
Reardon said one possible reason the 2018 accountability ratings correlate with poverty despite measuring academic growth is that the state also considers achievement.
“If they give you the better of two things, it’s sort of like saying, ‘Well, we’ll call you healthy if you’re not overweight or if you exercise a lot,’ ” Reardon said. “It kind of muddies the water.”
Seventy percent of a school or district’s accountability rating comes from the higher of two scores: either academic achievement or school progress. The school progress score is further divided into two options: academic growth or relative performance, which compares a school’s results to other schools with similar concentrations of poverty.
The remaining 30 percent of a school or district’s rating comes from what TEA calls “Closing the Gaps,” which measures the academic achievement of students from historically underperforming backgrounds, including black students, Hispanic students, English-language learners and students in special education.
Still, some experts and advocates say there are good reasons to hold schools accountable for achievement even though it correlates with poverty.
Anne Hyslop, who used to work for the U.S. Department of Education, said low-performing schools should be identified so they can receive extra support.
“It is important whether students are reading and doing math on grade level at the end of the day, because that’s going to be critical to whether students succeed beyond high school,” said Hyslop, who now works for the non-profit Alliance for Excellent Education.
One of the reasons Texas’ accountability system is controversial is because it is punitive. Schools that fail five years in a row face closure or state takeover.
Correlation is Not Causation
The correlation between poverty and the accountability rating does not mean that poverty caused the schools to have a lower rating.
As Reardon said, students come to school with different opportunities. Some went to preschool, some didn’t, for instance. And other factors at the schools themselves could also contribute to the correlation, including the experience level of teachers, the number of advanced classes a school offers, and the amount of money a district is able to spend per student.
Kit Lively of KERA and Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media contributed to this report, which was produced as part of the Texas Station Collaborative, an initiative that connects the newsrooms of Texas' four largest public radio stations: KERA in North Texas, KUT in Austin, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and Houston Public Media.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille