After a U.S. Department of Education review found problems with the state's proposed plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Texas could end up with two different systems to measure accountability.

Much of the department’s critique of Texas’s plan centered on state law accountability provisions that could potentially run afoul of ESSA requirements. USDE gave TEA a short turnaround time to submit a revised ESSA State Plan — several weeks ahead of its schedule for receiving stakeholder input on the new state A-F accountability system. In a Jan. 8, 2018, letter, Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the revised ESSA plan does not include feedback from the field, but TEA will continue to seek stakeholder input leading up to the March release of proposed rules for the state accountability system.

Given that state laws can only be changed by the Legislature, which next meets in 2019, it is unclear how state and federal law conflicts can be resolved before then. This could lead to two separate accountability systems — one state, one federal — in contradiction to the state's initial goal of structuring the new state accountability system so it aligned with ESSA accountability requirements. TEA was trying to avoid the situation Texas had under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA’s predecessor, in which, due to conflicting state and federal accountability requirements, schools received two different accountability ratings based on different measures. This caused a great deal of confusion for parents and the public. The current situation could be even more confusing, since, unlike under NCLB, the accountability labels will be the same for both systems (A-F grades), so, for example, a school could get an “A” under the state system but a “C” under the federal system.

Potential conflicts

As the state works to meet the new federal requirements, a review of the revised plan illustrates some potentially major conflicts between the proposed state accountability system and the accountability system USDE will likely approve for Texas.

Under the new state accountability system, there are three domains:
(Click here for an in-depth look at the proposed indicators for each domain.)

  • Domain 1: Student Achievement
  • Domain 2: School Progress
  • Domain 3: Closing the Gaps

TEA’s efforts to align the state system with ESSA involved deliberately structuring Domain 3 to meet federal ESSA accountability requirements. However, Texas law requires a school district's accountability rating to be based on the better score of Domains 1 or 2, which appears to conflict with ESSA requirements for two reasons.

First, ESSA requires that states meaningfully differentiate between all schools based on ALL the indicators in the state accountability system. In Texas’s system, if a school’s Domain 1 score is better than its Domain 2 score then its overall accountability score would be awarded only on the indicators in Domains 1 and 3. This difference is a point that USDE made in its review of the state’s original plan, along with the fact that Texas’s plan failed to describe how school grades are calculated, or the weighting of each indicator in the system. So, for example, in the scenario just presented, a school wouldn’t be rated on Domain 2. Domain 2 has a student growth indicator on Reading/Math STAAR that could be applicable to some high schools — that indicator for high schools is not present in any of the other domains. 

Additionally, ESSA requires that certain of its required indicators must receive substantial weight individually in a state’s system of annual meaningful differentiation (i.e. accountability system). As mentioned earlier, the indicators in Domain 3 are the same as the ESSA-required indicators. Of those, ESSA requires that the Academic Achievement Indicator, which Texas has proposed to be Academic Achievement in Reading, Math STAAR (percentage of assessments at/above Meets Grade Level for all students/subgroups); Other Academic Indicator (for elementary and middle school), which Texas has proposed to be growth on STAAR Reading and Math over a two-year period; Graduation Rates; and English Language Proficiency, which Texas has proposed to be the TELPAS progress rate, must receive substantial weight individually. 

Since, for example, the English Language Proficiency indicator is not represented in any of the other domains and is only one of seven indicators in Domain 3, in which all indicators are weighted equally, it does not receive substantial weight in the proposed system. Another example is the Other Academic Indicator, which is represented in Domains 2 and 3. If a school’s overall rating is based on the better score of Domains 1 or 2, then in cases in which a schools’ better rating is in Domain 1, the Other Academic Indicator would not receive substantial weight in the system, since it would only be one of seven indicators, weighted equally in Domain 3, which counts only 30 percent of a school’s overall accountability rating.

However, in response to USDE's critique, Texas’s revised plan does not change the proposal to use the better score of Domain 1 or Domain 2, but rather simply adds language that these two domains will account for 70 percent of the overall rating and the additional 30 percent will be comprised from Domain 3. It then refers to a new Appendix E for information on the methodology for calculation of each of the domains and the summative rating. However, it is not clear in Appendix E how the overall score for Domain 2 is calculated, and given the issues we noted earlier, it remains unclear whether Texas can continue to use the better score of Domains 1 or 2 in calculating accountability ratings for federal accountability purposes.

Local accountability systems

Then there is the real wild card — the ability of certain eligible schools to factor in local accountability system ratings as up to 50 percent of their overall state accountability ratings (state law allows school districts rated C or higher by TEA to develop local accountability systems). Again, given that ESSA requires that the Academic Achievement, Other Academic, Graduation Rate and English Proficiency indicators must receive substantial weight individually in a state’s system of annual meaningful differentiation, if up to 50 percent of a school’s final accountability rating is based on indicators other than these ESSA-required indicators in their local accountability systems, it does not appear possible for the ESSA-required indicators to receive substantial weight individually under TEA’s current proposal.

Finally, Texas is also required by state law to use the NCES definition of “dropout” in calculating graduation rates and also to apply certain exclusions for students in special situations; however, federal law requires a different definition of the graduation measure that does not allow for exclusions, nor include the NCES definition. 

Still test-heavy for elementary and middle schools

Another point to note is that despite ESSA’s provision for states to use at least one School Quality/Student Success measure in their state accountability systems, including measures such as educator/student engagement and school climate/safety, Texas chose to use student performance for all students on all STAAR tests (taking the average of the number/percent of students scoring at the Approaches, Meets and Master levels), for elementary and middle schools.

This means that elementary and middle school accountability will be based entirely on student performance on state tests, a long-standing point of contention for many educators and parents. In our comments on the state's original ESSA plan submission, TCTA expressed our dismay that the draft plan did not take advantage of ESSA’s addition of school quality or student success measures for states to use in their state accountability systems to supplement state standardized test results. While we acknowledged the legitimate struggle that Texas has had in identifying workable non-test-based indicators of school success for elementary and middle schools, we pointed out that this would be an excellent opportunity to focus on incorporating school quality indicators (like a validated school climate survey measuring student/educator engagement and school climate/safety) into the accountability system. We noted that a key advantage to using such an indicator is that it can be applicable to all grade levels, and administered statewide.

Duplication of indicators

Another consequence of the state’s decisions regarding the measures of School Quality/Student Success it will use for all levels of schools is a significant duplication of indicators in the accountability system. For example, Texas designated the college/career/military readiness indicators that are part of Domain 1 for high schools also as the measures of School Quality/Student Success for high schools in Domain 3. (The CCMR indicators are part of Domain 2, as well.) And the measure the state chose for the SQSS measure for elementary and middle schools is the same indicator that is used for elementary and middle schools in Domain 1.

Other items of interest

Eighth-graders taking Algebra I: The plan provides for the scores of eighth-grade students taking Algebra I to count as their math score for purposes of that school’s accountability rating, which is allowed by ESSA. But ESSA also requires that if a state chooses to go this route, in high school the student must take a state-administered EOC assessment or nationally recognized high school academic assessment in mathematics that is more advanced than Algebra I. Accordingly, Texas’s revised plan provides that the state will require students who take Algebra I in middle school to also take the SAT or ACT in high school so that their results can be used in the accountability system.

Accountability Performance targets: ESSA requires states to set/describe long-term/interim goals for certain of the ESSA-required indicators, including the Academic Achievement indicator, Graduation Rate indicator, and English Language proficiency indicator. However, Texas‘s original/revised ESSA plan provides long-term/interim goals for all indicators, including the Other Academic Indicator for elementary and middle school, and School Quality/Student Success.

Texas ran into trouble with its original proposal to use the percentage of all students/student subgroups achieving the “Approaches Grade Level” standard on all STAAR tests as its long-term/interim goal for the Academic Achievement Indicator. USDE questioned TEA’s assertion that “Approaches Grade Level” is proficient, noting that TEA described this level in its original plan as one standard deviation below the Meets Grade Level standard. USDE pointed out that ESSA requires that the long-term/interim goals for this indicator must be measured by grade-level proficiency, and only on annual state reading/language arts and math assessments.

The revised plan provides that the measure for the Academic Achievement indicator will be achievement outcomes on STAAR reading and math for grades 3-8 and EOC assessments in ELA/reading and mathematics, calculated as the percentage of assessments at or above the Meets Grade Level standard (proficiency) for all students and student groups by subject. The revised plan describes the new long-term goal as 30 percent growth by 2032 over baseline scores from the 2016-17 school year.

The result of this change is that the interim goals for this measure are much lower than they were in the original plan, which used “Approaches grade level” as the standard, and each student group has a different long-term goal (instead of all subgroups being at 90 percent). This may end up being controversial, especially among civil rights groups. 

By the same token, USDE instructed Texas to describe how its long-term/interim goals take into account the improvement necessary to make significant progress in closing statewide proficiency gaps. The state's revised plan states: “TEA’s goal is to have all students reach the increase 30 percent in the Meets Performance level by 2032. In setting this benchmark, TEA is maintaining an expectation that we should hold all student groups to the same expectations of proficiency growth over the course of this plan.” It is unclear from this explanation how providing the same percentage increase for all student groups will allow the state to make significant progress in closing statewide proficiency gaps.

Teacher equity gaps

ESSA requires states to describe in their state plans the extent, if any, to which low-income and minority children enrolled in Title I schools are served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of field, or inexperienced teachers. ESSA also requires a state to describe the measure(s) it will use to evaluate and publicly report its progress in this area. In reviewing Texas’s original plan, USDE noted that TEA simply provided a link to its equity toolkit website and a table showing the three likely causes for the most significant differences in rates of access to educators, along with corresponding strategies TEA will use to address identified likely causes. USDE concluded that Texas did not provide sufficient information to determine whether the state meets the ESSA requirements described above.

USDE’s comments on this issue echoed those made by TCTA in the comments we submitted on the state’s original plan. We pointed out that the plan provided that the measure Texas would use to evaluate and publicly report progress on this issue could be found on the Texas Equity Toolkit website, which in turn refers to the Texas State Equity Plan. We noted that the State Equity Plan provides that the only equity gap of any size identified in Texas was the rate of assignment of inexperienced teachers to poor and minority students. Given this, we argued that the bulk of strategies identified by Texas to address equity gaps should be focused on addressing inexperienced teachers through initiatives such as high-quality mentoring and induction programs, however, such strategies were notably absent from those listed in Texas’s original ESSA plan.

In response to USDE’s critique, the state’s revised plan adds language acknowledging that the data did indeed find that an equity gap exists in Texas regarding the disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to poor/minority students, and provided that the following measures would be used to calculate and report on that gap in addition to any that might be found for out-of-field or ineffective teachers: 

MEASURE HOW CALCULATED WHEN REPORTED
Inexperience Comparison between highest
poverty and minority quartile campuses 
for teachers in their
first two years of teaching.

2017-18 school year: Feb. 15 

Subsequent school years: Dec. 15

Out-of-field Comparision between the highest
poverty and minority quartile
campuses for teachers whose
credentials match the state
assignment rules.

2017-18 school year: Feb. 15

Subsequent school years: Dec. 15

Ineffectiveness 

For the purposes of equity gaps,
TEA calculates teacher
effectiveness based on student
academic growth based on state
assessments. Comparison between
actual student growth and expected
student growth.

2017-18 school year: Feb. 15

Subsequent school years: Dec.15

However, the strategies for addressing these gaps listed in Texas’s revised plan did not change.

Given the issues identified above, it remains to be seen whether the changes Texas made in its ESSA plan in response to USDE’s original review will suffice in USDE’s eyes to meet ESSA requirements. USDE has until Jan. 23 to approve or deny the plan. TCTA will continue to monitor and report to our members developments as they occur.