Schools quibble over campus grades when most Fort Worth kids can’t read properly | Opinion

The growing list of Texas school districts suing over the state’s system for grading campuses may have a point when they argue that it’s unfair to change the criteria for ratings once a school year is over, as the Texas Education Agency seeks to do.

But the focus is misplaced. Some school officials seem more worked up about the grades than the pitiful student performance that they might reflect. Many sound like they would much rather dodge accountability than address the learning crisis facing our state.

Among those suing are the Fort Worth, Crowley, Dallas and Plano districts, with the FWISD board voting Tuesday to join the cause. The coalition is a range of districts with different problems, but none can duck the central truths of where American and Texas education stand: Too many children cannot sufficiently read or perform math, and the lingering effects of the pandemic put an entire generation at risk.

The districts ask a judge to halt the TEA’s decision to delay campus ratings for the 2022-23 academic year so it could re-evaluate data used to determine how much progress schools are making. In essence, TEA is grading tougher in a few areas once districts finished a year under different criteria. The schools argue that Education Commissioner Mike Morath lacks authority under state law to make such a change.

Lost in the jargon-filled battle, though, is a simple fact: School ratings have papered over the gaps in our schools for years. The state’s campus grades have been better than student achievement can justify, and we need honest assessments of where things stand if we’re going to fix it.

Between this and obsessing over the possibility that the Legislature will create a school-choice program, districts seem to be spending a lot more energy fighting than fixing.

Superintendents say that of course they welcome accountability. But there’s always a caveat: Not enough money. Teachers, not tests, should evaluate student performance. Look at our extra-curricular activities and all we do for the kids.

These things are important, especially for low-income families and those with other significant challenges. But objective measures of progress on basic learning are non-negotiable. If the kids aren’t learning to read, write and do math, little else matters.

And the evidence that many — in some districts, most — students aren’t mastering those basics is overwhelming.

Consider just two recent findings. The Fort Worth Education Project crunches numbers for schools across the city — importantly, not just FWISD. Its most recent work shows that just 36% of the city’s students in grades 3-8 are achieving at their grade level in state tests on reading, math, science and social studies. In other words, for every kid on grade level, there are two who aren’t.

The numbers are dismal across the board; in only one City Council district do a majority hit the mark, and even in that area, north Fort Worth’s District 10, it’s only 52% on grade level.

Parents, guided more by report cards from their children’s teachers, might not even be aware. The Star-Telegram newsroom found huge gaps in the state testing results and classroom grades. As many as three-quarters of third-graders brought home As and Bs in reading. And yet only 37% of them test on grade level.

The TEA’s campus ratings should not be considered the definitive word, for sure. Measuring school performance is complicated. But they should be accurate, based on the best use of the available data. And if there isn’t enough improvement and growth in a school, the grade should reflect it.

With all that we know about how schools are falling short, and we’re arguing over the difference in a B or a C?

Researchers have warned that a generation of children whose education was disrupted by the pandemic may never catch up. Many school officials and teachers have done admirable, creative work to address the problem. But if we can’t honestly face the measurement of the problem, we can’t come close to solving it.

No one assessment is perfect. It’s become fashionable to bash the STAAR test and anything associated with it. So, by all means, treat school districts fairly in handing out grades — but let’s focus on what the data shows and what must be done about it, not the process.

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