Waiver request not specific about accountability ratings

After significant urging from TCTA, educators and Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced in mid-December that he would seek a federal accountability waiver for hurricane-impacted schools/districts. The official waiver request was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on Jan. 30, 2018. Morath's wording does not make clear whether the request specifically seeks relief from ESSA's provisions related to accountability ratings. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, TCTA and other educators/groups urged Morath to give hurricane-impacted schools/districts a “Not Rated” accountability rating for the 2017-18 school year, much as a former commissioner did in 2006 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. TCTA and others argued that since state accountability ratings are still heavily reliant on student test performance, test results from these students would not be accurate given the trauma and displacement students in hurricane-impacted districts had experienced.  

TCTA provided legislators with information about previous federal accountability waivers in conjunction with issuing the “Not Rated” ratings. Subsequently, Gov. Abbott issued a letter urging Morath to “initiate a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education that would give the state the option of not rating certain campuses while allowing those campuses to receive certain federal funds.”

However, Morath’s official waiver request says “TEA requests flexibility from school improvement provisions of ESSA for LEAs (local school districts) in the heaviest impacted areas as we work to provide support and relief to LEAs heavily affected by the storm. TEA may not be providing state accountability ratings for certain campuses in the impacted regions; however, we will continue to identify all campuses in the state as comprehensive and/or targeted as outlined in our ESSA State Plan.”

Does the waiver’s wording mean that TEA is seeking relief from giving A-F ratings to hurricane-impacted schools under Texas’s ESSA-required system of annual meaningful differentiation?

ESSA requires that all states receiving federal Title I funds establish a statewide accountability system that includes annually “meaningfully differentiating” all schools and based on that, identifying certain schools for comprehensive improvement/support. So although ESSA doesn’t specifically require state accountability ratings, it does require states to categorize schools based on the state’s accountability system of meaningful differentiation.

Texas’s revised proposed ESSA plan’s description of the state’s system of annual meaningful differentiation is an A-F accountability system with three domains in which “The overall campus/district A-F grade is weighted by taking the better score of the Student Achievement domain or School Progress domain, which will account for 70 percent of the overall rating. The additional 30 percent will be comprised from the Closing the Gaps domain.”

As for identifying schools for comprehensive improvement/support, the revised ESSA plan provides that “In effort to align identification of comprehensive support and improvement schools with the state’s A-F rating system, TEA will utilize a rank ordering method based on the overall composite score of campuses on the three domains. … The Agency will identify at least the lowest five percent scoring campuses that receive Title I, Part A funds for comprehensive support.”

Commissioner Morath has made it clear that final decisions about this and the state accountability system have not been made, and that TEA is still gathering stakeholder feedback. However, recent remarks from Morath and other TEA officials indicate that the commissioner is not necessarily looking at automatically awarding Not Rated ratings to hurricane-impacted schools, but rather taking a more complicated approach, along the lines of first reviewing student test performance from these districts, factoring in displacements of students and staff as well as disruptions to instructional environments, and setting a cut point accordingly. Then schools falling below the cut point would receive a Not Rated rating, but schools falling at/above the cut point would receive an A-F rating.  

TCTA will continue to advocate that, instead of taking such a complex approach, Morath simply issue a Not Rated rating to all school districts/schools located in counties in the Presidential Disaster Declaration for Hurricane Harvey.