How did Texas charter schools perform under the A-F ratings?
Second-grade teacher Desirae Allison leads her class at Austin Achieve charter school in Northeast Austin on Friday. The school, where 94 percent of students are low income and 57 percent are English language learners, earned a 72, equivalent to a C. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas charter schools, which have seen explosive growth as an alternative to traditional public schools, posted mixed results under a new state rating system rolled out this month.
According to the results, 21 percent of Texas charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — received a numeric score equivalent to an A, 29 percent received a B, 27 percent received a C, 12 percent received a D and 11 percent got an F.
The performance of traditional public schools across the state also varied, but charter school districts made up more than a quarter of all districts that received an A.
“In general, we were thrilled to see that even though public charter schools educate about 5 percent of public school students, we did have that higher number in the category that got As,” said Laura Kelly, director of quality services with the Texas Charter Schools Association.
Under the new school rating system, the state assigns schools and districts a letter grade of A to F.
Amid complaints from public school officials, however, the state has postponed assigning letter grades to campuses. For this year only, schools were instead given scores on a scale of 0 to 100 equivalent to letter grades; the state labeled schools that scored above a 60 “met standard,” while schools below 60 were given “improvement required.”
Officials for traditional public schools have criticized the state for creating a rating system that is heavily reliant on state standardized tests and for using letter grades that can stigmatize schools.
Kelly said although change is uncomfortable, the rating system is fair, clearly highlighting the areas in which schools are doing well and poorly. She also applauded state officials for committing to keeping the system unchanged over the next five years so schools can gauge how they’ve improved.
“One of the better aspects of (the new system) is just being able to see where are those pockets of high performance,” she said.
Statewide, there were 84 charter schools with at least 50 percent of students classified as low income that scored a 90 or higher — a lofty accomplishment considering that several studies have shown that low-income children tend to perform worse on state standardized tests than their wealthier peers.
Nine percent of charter schools with the highest rates of low-income students failed this year. According to critics of the new school-rating system, less than 1 percent of charter schools with the highest rates of wealthier students failed, indicating that student poverty influenced campus performance.
“There’s been a lot of groups that have mentioned you can predict who’s going to get those grades,” said David DeMatthews, a University of Texas associate education professor. “The grading system is really just targeting those schools and those communities as failures without really looking at what it is that they’re doing.”
How did Austin-area charters do?
Public charter schools and traditional public schools can have an antagonistic relationship because both are competing for students as well as money from the state.
The Austin school district has experienced declining enrollment over the past several years due to a combination of factors, including students leaving for charter schools, where attendance has grown by an average of 25 percent annually in the Austin area.
According to the state ratings, traditional schools and local charter campuses were given comparable scores. Although charters had higher rates of schools that failed, they also had a higher percentage of top scores than traditional public schools, according to an analysis by the American-Statesman.
Of the Central Texas charter schools, nearly a quarter earned scores equivalent to A’s and 7 percent received the equivalent of F’s.
By comparison, 20 percent of local traditional schools earned A’s and 4 percent received failing grades.
The 1,015-student NYOS, a charter school in North Austin, was among the highest local performers, receiving an overall score of 93.
The school’s executive director, Kathleen Zimmermann, said the new rating system had its pluses, but she didn’t attribute it to their good score. She said schools this year were measured on targets they didn’t know about until the school year was over and exams were taken. That approach was particularly troublesome for charter schools because of the three-strikes rule in state law, which closes charters if they fail to meet state standards for three consecutive years, she said.
“In terms of comparing 1,000 schools across the state in a cohesive system, I feel it does a good job of that,” Zimmerman said. “But each school feels that we bring something different to the table than our neighbor schools, and there’s not a way to capture that in this accountability system.”
The two-campus Cedars International Academy charter district scored an 87, or a B, despite serving mostly low-income black and Hispanic students. Forty-one percent of its student body is also learning English. The district’s Cedars Academy International Next Generation High School, which serves grades 8-12, scored a 92.
The high school integrates projects into every lesson with a focus on science, technology, math, science and arts, offering a more engaging way of learning, Principal Steven Zipkes said.
“Students who are underrepresented, maybe they’re low-income or have huge learning gaps because they’ve been left behind, they’re taking this knowledge and applying it,” Zipkes said. “It’s the first time they’ve ever been in this learning environment, and they just excel.”
Zipkes said he never looked at the accountability system or its ongoing changes until the scores came out because learning is more than mastery of the content to succeed on an exam. Their targets instead are based on how a student performed the year prior, focusing on areas where they didn’t perform well, to close achievement gaps, he said.
The state awarded the high school with all seven possible distinctions for being a top performer on certain measures compared with similar schools.
But other local charter campuses had lackluster performance in the ratings system. Goodwater Montessori in Georgetown failed with a 48. Wayside Schools, with four schools on its Southeast Austin campus, earned a D, or 67, and its Altamira Academy failed, earning a 49.
“While we appreciate the state’s attempt to update the accountability system to A-F, it is still a system the relies mostly on high-stakes standardized tests. Accountability in Texas has yet to measure or focus on what it takes to educate the whole child,” Wayside Superintendent Matt Abbott said in an emailed statement. “We take this rating seriously and have a solid plan to improve standardized test scores so that this does not happen again.”
Austin Achieve Public Schools, where 94 percent of the charter school’s students are low income and 57 percent are English language learners, earned a 72, equivalent to a C.
“We are encouraged by the fact that the results are consistent with our own assessments and show that we are outperforming the neighborhood schools that our scholars would otherwise be zoned to attend,” said John Armbrust, founder and CEO of the East Austin school. “While the accountability system is making progress in terms of being more comprehensive, it does not yet measure so many whole-child initiatives that we care so deeply about.”
Room to improve?
Kelly, with Texas Charter Schools Association, is hopeful the rating system will become more holistic, particularly when the state will allow schools, districts and charters to grade themselves and have it count as a part of their overall state rating. Twenty district and charter systems are piloting possible locally developed accountability systems.
Kelly said she has heard complaints that smaller charter schools, where there can be less variation in the student body’s makeup, could be unfairly rated by the system. For example, the state includes in its calculations how well districts close the student performance gap based on different ethnic and racial groups, income levels and whether students are in special education or not.
“Our reality in the new A-F system is that because of the smaller size and makeup of our charter school district, this had a significant and adverse impact on our overall district rating,” Wayside’s Abbott said.
Sixty-five percent of charter students are low-income, compared with 58 percent at traditional public schools in Texas, according to the charter school association.
Supporters of the new rating system, including Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, have said it tries to avoid unduly penalizing schools with high rates of low-income students by taking into account student progress from year to year and how campuses and districts with similar student poverty levels perform compared with one another.
UT’s DeMatthews said the state hasn’t gone far enough to eliminate inequities in the rating system and recommends replacing the letter grades with labels that are more prescriptive and less stigmatizing.
Even though supporters say the new rating system can ferret out high-performing schools that others can model, DeMatthews fears such a narrative could provide an excuse for lawmakers to not adequately fund schools. The multiplier the state uses to determine how much extra money districts receive to educate low-income students hasn’t changed since the 1980s.
Texas ranks 36th in the nation in how much it spends per student — $2,300 below the national average, according to the National Education Association.
“The school districts that serve low-income communities are not receiving equitable funding to do the job that they’re supposed to do,” DeMatthews said. “The rating system is a distraction from addressing the key issues.”
Dax Gonzalez with the Texas Association of School Boards said parents shouldn’t look to the state ratings to determine whether a charter school is right for their children. Although charter schools are required to accept all students, Gonzalez said many have enrollment caps that allow them to be selective in the admission process, which can inflate a school’s performance, he said.
“It’s important that parents look at the services offered at each school and determine whether that’s going to help their child better,” he said. “Parents need to decide what is best for their child. I don’t think these grades necessarily present that picture.”