Texas’ new A-F grading system shows that charter schools tend to be more successful than traditional public schools, but they also have a higher rate of failure.
Statewide, charters had a larger rate of schools graded ‘A’ under the new accountability system. Traditional school districts had a much lower rate of F’s. And in North Texas, traditional schools generally outperformed their charter peers, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.
The analysis also hints at the pitfalls parents face as they try to pick the best schools for their children even as charter operators and traditional public schools intensify the competition for students.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by private or nonprofit operators. Bucking conventional thinking, the data shows that a charter school or charter operator might get an ‘F’ — even though many charter schools are publicly perceived as better performers than traditional schools — while the public school next door that a parent was avoiding might get an ‘A.’
And yet, some educators say a charter school might still be a better choice for some students because many target specific children with specific needs, such as those at risk of dropping out or families with low incomes.
Laura Kelly, director of quality services at the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the new grading system will make recruiting students more challenging as schools seek to explain they might be the best fit for a student.
“It will make it harder for districts and charters both on the whole, but better for the kids and the parents,” said Kelly. “That’s why many of us got into this work, to make strong options for kids. So that’s a good thing. Then it will be up to that parent to look at the factors within both to see what’s a match for their child.”
The Texas Education Agency said nearly 37 percent of charter districts across the state earned an ‘A’ compared to about 16 percent of traditional school districts that received the highest rating. But such charter districts also had a larger share of ‘F’ grades, 8 percent compared to only 1.2 in traditional districts.
Individual campus grades were not released this year, but the public can deduce what they would have looked like based on overall numerical scores issued by the state for each school. The News’ analysis found:
* About 20 percent of charter campuses – 128 out of 625 that received numeric scores – would have received the ‘A’ grade compared to nearly 19 percent of traditional public school campuses. Meanwhile, 11 percent of charters – 69 campuses — would have gotten an ‘F.’ Only 5 percent of traditional public schools would have earned that failing grade.
* In North Texas, nearly a quarter of Dallas area campuses at school districts would have earned an ‘A’ compared to about 15 percent of charters. And charters also would have seen a much higher rate of F’s, 12 percent compared to just under 3 percent for Dallas area school district campuses.
* The bulk of individual charter school campuses that would have earned A’s are those that belong to large networks. Harmony Public Schools, for example, has 54 campuses and 18 would have earned an ‘A’. Of the 56 IDEA Public Schools campuses that received scores, 29 would have earned an ‘A’.
* Charter schools with fewer children who live in poverty performed well. For example, the Westlake Academy, a city-run charter school in an affluent part of Tarrant County, outscored most other schools in the state with a 98, but also reported that no children from low-income families attend the school. Other highest performing charter schools tended to be ones affiliated with a college.
No grading system can account for every factor in choosing a school.
One school’s story
Last year, Kim Doucette decided to enroll her daughter — now 12 and a sixth-grader — at Legacy Preparatory Charter Academy’s Plano campus. Legacy Prep appeared to be a solid choice with a strong focus on college prep. It had a “met standard” rating in the state’s soon-to-be-retired old evaluation system.
Then last week, Doucette was stunned to see that charter operator got an ‘F’ under the new grading system. The Plano campus itself would have earned a ‘D’ based on its overall score of 69.
And Doucette lives in the Plano school district, which received the top ‘A’ rating. “I worried I made a mistake,” by choosing the charter school, Doucette said.
But the simple grades don’t always reflect the complexities of education: Doucette says she’s hesitant to move her daughter into a large school system because of her child’s learning disability.
Her daughter seems to benefit from the smaller size of Legacy Prep, which has about 300 students at the Plano campus. She worries that if she enrolled her daughter in a traditional school, she wouldn’t get the extra help needed to be successful.
At Legacy Prep, “they are willing to accommodate her on a smaller scale, and every kid is treated individually,” Doucette said. “But these grades are just a huge shock. I have to really think about it.”
Some public school advocates hope the new grades debunk the myth that any school — public or private — is better than a neighborhood campus.
Thomas Ratliff is a former member of the State Board of Education whose father wrote the law that established charters in Texas. He said many people assumed charters would outshine neighborhood schools across the board.
“That didn’t happen,” Ratliff said. “I’ve said from day one, there are charters that save kids lives and there are charters that should have been shut down years ago. That’s why it’s important for parents to know what’s going on. That’s why we need transparency.”
Rebecca Good, Legacy Prep’s superintendent, echos the concerns of many other school administrators across the state who say the state’s new grading system doesn’t illustrate what’s really happening in schools. Rather, they say, the grades are a reflection of economics. Schools with fewer children living in poverty tend to have higher grades.
Good said she sought out students from the area’s most struggling neighborhoods when launching Legacy Prep in 2012, with the specific intention of giving underserved children better opportunities. After moving schools and consolidating campuses over the years, her charter district now operates the one small Plano campus and a larger one in Mesquite.
But consolidation led to coding errors during the last round of STAAR testing, and now Good isn’t sure the grade her district received is a clean one because some scores could be missing.
‘F’ grades are particularly troublesome for charters, which will face automatic shutdown by the state if they fail academic standards three years in row.
“We’re having to stand by and possibly appeal our data — using public funds to hire statisticians, hire lawyers — so that we can get a fair chance and a fair rating,” she said.
In the meantime, Legacy Prep schools are focused on serving students, Good said.
“We are very candid when our parents ask us questions,” she said. “We make sure they are happy with what’s going on in their classroom. Ultimately, that’s the end game right there. Are they happy?”
The evolution of grading
Texas launched the state’s first academic accountability program for public schools in 1994 with a tiered system that had “exemplary” at the top and “low performing” or “academically unacceptable” at the bottom. That system lasted through 2011 when lawmakers changed it.
In 1995, Texas approved the launch of charter schools. They’re not part of a typical public school district. They’re generally subject to fewer regulations than traditional schools. For example, they don’t have state mandated class-size limits.
Charters schools serve a small portion of all Texas public school students — about 5 percent — but they often compete directly with urban districts for students. For example, about 33,000 children who live within the boundaries of Dallas ISD instead attend a charter school.
There’s been a massive expansion in the number of charter schools across Texas — many schools have long student waiting lists — as families look for more choices to suit their children’s individual needs. Some public school districts have responded by launching a slew of specialty campuses of their own.
In the previous tiered ratings, charters were generally were overrepresented at both the top and the bottom of the school ratings.
The ratings now being phased out, which used “met standard/improvement required” categories, did little to show at a glance how schools were faring against each other. While the Texas Education Agency does issue distinctions to schools for certain areas — such as college readiness — parents were rarely aware of them.
The new A through F system is intended to give communities a more detailed way of comparing schools. The letter grades are largely determined by how well students did on the STAAR tests, how much progress they made or how schools did in comparison to peers.
Drilling down into the data can reveal the complexity of the grading system.
The fast-growing International Leadership of Texas charter network, which serves about 18,000 students across the state, earned a ‘B’ as a district. But it also had five campuses that would have faced F’s if individual campuses had received grades and the state hadn’t issued accountability waivers to its schools affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Those failing campuses would have included its elementary school in Lancaster, which fared worse than the nearby Rosa Parks-Millbrooks Elementary in Lancaster ISD that would have earned a ‘B’. The charter’s east Fort Worth middle school would have failed while the Fort Worth ISD’s Meadowbrook Middle nearby would have earned a ‘C.’
IL Texas officials said that the grades do reflect some areas where they are working to improve. But the accountability system doesn’t show the charter’s unique work to ensure their students learn Spanish and Chinese alongside English, or their mission to to teach students to be servant leaders.
That’s why all schools must work on maintaining the trust of their parents, said Tony Palagonia, Dallas area superintendent and chief of student support for IL Texas.
“What we do in education, to say it can be boiled down to an A through F grade is a little misleading because it’s about relationships,” Palagonia said. “I don’t remember what teachers gave me my high grade. But I remember what teachers made me feel like I could go out and problem solve. I could go out and lead. And I could go out and accomplish things.”
Some traditional school district officials are sure to tout their school achievements, especially if they are outperforming competitors like charters, said Dax Gonzalez, who oversees governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards.
“When you’re having to advertise to recruit or to keep your students, you’re going to use whatever information you can to help your cause,” he said. “But I’ve seen a administrators who just don’t believe the A-F system is helpful to public schools at all. So they’re not going to crow about their A’s and B’s and not complain about D’s and F’s because it’s all still based on high-stakes testing that grades kids unfairly.”