By WILL WEISSERT
AUSTIN, Texas — The state’s top education official said Tuesday he plans to order Texas to begin rating schools based on letter grades A through F starting next year — without waiting for high-profile bills proposing to do the same thing to work their way through the Legislature.
The current system features classifications ranging from “Exemplary” to “Academically Unacceptable,” but key conservative lawmakers have supported a series of measures to replace it with grades A, B, C, D, or F and used in states like Florida. They say such a system would make it easier for parents and students to understand and increase classroom transparency.
But Education Commissioner Michael Williams told the Senate Education Committee that he had planned to simply order the change unilaterally beginning in academic year 2014.
Williams has for months been working on an overhaul of school accountability ratings, and said he had planned to unveil it last week — but held off when the Senate panel summoned him to appear. Asked if he had the authority to do so without legislative approval, Williams said, “I believe I do.”
Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, worried that schools with poor grades could hurt real estate prices in urban areas, and Williams promised not to formally announce the change until his agency had researched that. Still, he defended letter grades.
“When you have a pass-fail kind of system you can be academically unacceptable and be just barely below the line,” Williams said. “But when you have a system that has five differentiating grades you can give much clearer, I think, information to parents to taxpayers, even kids about where their school stands.”
Since being appointed commissioner by Gov. Rick Perry last year, Williams has promised to place extra emphasis in accountability ratings on how well schools and school districts are closing achievement gaps between white and minority students, and improving educational outcomes for youngsters from low-income families.
He said Tuesday he considers that “job one” of the state’s educational system, and that new accountability standards will evaluate schools and districts on it, as well as three other areas: student achievement on standardized tests, students’ academic improvement as they move through school, and how ready they are for college or a career upon graduating from high school.
Williams said he was still determining what each letter grade would mean, but that he believes schools and districts who pass all four standards would get an A, while others would go down one letter grade for each area where their students fall short. Currently his agency determines school ratings based on a formula, and that presumably wouldn’t change under the new system, though the new formula it would use hasn’t been established.
Williams said having 55 percent of economically disadvantaged and minority students reading at a grade level could be considered acceptable in the achievement gap category, while perhaps having 75 percent of students graduate from high school with “recommended” or “distinguished” diplomas could meet passing standards in college and career readiness category.
When West noted that schools in predominantly Hispanic and black areas have often been issued failing grades in states with letter grade scales like Florida, Williams responded that placing more emphasis on closing the achievement gap will “give a fair break to those schools that are largely populated with hard-to-reach kids.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said that while the current rating system wasn’t perfect, it had been accepted by the education community — and that school superintendents and others were worried letter grades could cause unnecessary confusion. He quizzed Williams on why grades are so different from Texas’ current scale.
“I think all of us understand, having gone to school, that D is slightly better than F and slightly worse than C,” Williams responded.
Currently, many high school students are required to pass 15 standardized tests in core subject to graduate as part of an exam system known as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness or STAAR. However, proposals in both the state Senate and House would cut that number to five.
Williams said such a reduction would make rating schools and districts based on student achievement “a bit more dicey,” which irked some committee Republicans.
“We got it wrong on the STAAR test and the amount of tests,” said Dan Patrick, a Houston tea party Republican who chairs the committee. “And when we get it wrong we need to acknowledge it and fix it.”