Every spring the non-profit organization Children at Risk releases their Texas School Guide for HISD and surrounding school districts – giving each school a letter grade – and each year I’m ambivalent about covering it.
That’s because over the past seven years freelancing at The Leader I’ve visited with a lot of dynamic principals and been inside a lot of schools with tireless teachers and enthusiastic students. Some of these schools have worked hard to prove their worth to the surrounding communities. Increasing numbers of them have active groups of parent volunteers who chose to send their kids to their neighborhood school and are spending hundreds of unpaid hours to build something special, not just for their child but for all of them.
Then the rankings come out and these same parents see their beloved school tagged with a C or a D, or an F. Other parents of pre-school age children see these same results and may knock a school off the list if the ranking is unsatisfactory enough.
For all of these reasons, we are not reprinting the report card for area schools in The Leader. You can visit https://texasschoolguide.org/ to look for yourself if you are curious. As a brief recap, there were no Leader area high schools higher than a C minus. The three highest ranked Leader middle schools – Frank Black, Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet and Hamilton Middle School scored a B. There were no A middle schools. And for elementary, just Field Elementary, Oak Forest Elementary and Travis Elementary rated an A.
When I asked online about parents’ views of the rankings, I knew I’d get a passionate response.
“A single letter grade score doesn’t even begin to tell the story of our school,” wrote one mom.
“These ratings are given by a group that has never once stepped into our IB school, never visited any of our thriving dual language classrooms, or spoken with a single parent, student or teacher,” echoed another.
“At Garden Oaks our goal is to provide an exceptional Montessori learning environment while supporting the development of the whole child,” said GOMM Principal Dr. Lindsey Pollack. “We accomplish this with high levels of student and parent satisfaction, high levels of community involvement, low discipline rates and an application pool of over 1,000 students ready to enroll on our campus which in my grade book add up to a solid ‘A’.”
The CAR rankings are generated by how schools score on the state’s STAAR test. And there are a growing number of parents who don’t feel like the test is a true indicator of student success.
“The CAR rankings are not of huge import to me because they are so heavily STAAR based; and STAAR doesn’t tell you very much of anything, in my opinion,” said a parent. “I would be much more interested in seeing how a school’s students stack up on a nationally normed test, perhaps Woodcock Johnson IV.”
Dr. Pollack said that many of the parents at GOMM view these tests as unacceptable and have chosen to keep their children out of school for the week during STAAR testing.
“As a school faculty we believe standardized testing is a practical life skill and work to prepare our students to do their best on every task they undertake,” she said. “That said, standardized testing environments are somewhat foreign to our students as we work to ensure that authentic, hands-on learning tasks are the focus of our efforts.”
Claire Treacy, the assistant director for the CAR’s Center for Social Measurement and Evaluation and the lead author of the study, said that she understands that their approach can always be improved upon but they are limited by the data that is publically available to them through the Texas Education Agency, largely being STAAR test scores.
CAR changed their methodology this year for the elementary school and middle school rankings to give equal weight to raw test scores (33 percent), student progress (33 percent), and expected performance relative to student demographics (33 percent). In past years the raw test scores component was 60 percent and student growth and expected performance relative to student demographics were both 20 percent.
Because of studies suggesting bias with regard to low SES student performance on the STAAR, CAR includes that third domain, Campus Performance.
“We are attempting to account for this limitation by giving schools credit for how they perform relative to schools with similar populations and SES levels,” she said.
The high schools have a fourth domain — College Readiness — that also factors in SAT/ACT scores and graduation rates.
Parents who do give credence to the rankings do so as one piece of the puzzle.
“It matters to me because I have three young children not yet in school,” said one parent. “So I assess as best as I can, I’ve toured all the schools I am interested in and gotten a feel for it, and have assessed scores…but having no experience, it’s hard not to consider these scores in the equation.”
Another parent said she didn’t use the rankings at all in her decision making process.
“I’ve worked in HISD for 18 years and sent my kid to the F-ranked school that became C and now a D,” she said. “CAR doesn’t measure school culture, teacher retention, instructional quality outside of test prep, diversity, or the feeling I get when my kid hops out of the car and runs happily to class.”
For those who note that many of the top scoring schools have lower numbers of economically disadvantaged students as part of the student body relative to the more than 70 percent of low SES students in the district as a whole, Treacy points to Field Elementary, which in recent years has consistently scored highly and got an A+ for this year, the only Leader area school to do so.
Field’s student body is made up of 87 percent economically disadvantaged students. In a past editorial, I highlighted Field’s accomplishments, noting how the long term principal has the respect and support of his teachers and how in recent years, more zoned families have invested in the school. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Treacy also notes the number of turnaround schools in Dallas ISD, due to the district’s Accelerating Campus Excellence (or ACE) program.
“There’s a lot of hope,” said Treacy.
For some, who are working hard in area schools, the biggest negative of the rankings is that they might turn off the very people who could be the difference makers.
“We tell students not to let a test score define their value and worth; we should be wary of doing the same thing to their school as a whole,” said parent Sarah Honore.