The state on Wednesday unveiled its controversial new academic accountability system, which shows that nearly half of North Texas school districts received an A or B grade.
Among nearly 160 school districts and charter school operators in the area, 39 earned the top A grade including Highland Park, Coppell and Sunnyvale in Dallas County and Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville and Hurst-Euless-Bedford in Tarrant County.
As expected, Dallas ISD received a B, with an overall score of 81. The surprise, though, was how it compared with schools ringing its southern border.
Over the years, DISD has struggled to keep students in its southern areas from transferring to neighboring districts. But according to the accountability scores, DISD outperformed all of them. Grand Prairie was the only B among the group, with an overall score of 80. Mesquite, Lancaster, Duncanville, Cedar Hill all were rated as C, while DeSoto and Ferris scored D's.
Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has been one of the most vocal critics of the new A-F accountability system, saying it oversimplifies what's happening in schools and the challenges they face.
But he gave credit to the state's education commissioner Mike Morath, a former Dallas ISD trustee, for putting more emphasis on progress and making it easier for schools to compare themselves with peers.
"I have to be honest, intellectually, about my objections to this, and I will continue to exercise those -- but this is a comparison of apples to apples," Hinojosa said. "Even though it's a simplistic answer in the end with a letter grade, it does confirm that we're moving in the right direction. And yes, I'm going to use it to our advantage wherever possible."
All but four Collin County districts earned an A. Lovejoy ISD had an overall score of 97, which tied with three other districts for the highest score. Farmersville and Blue Ridge earned B's while Anna and Community earned C's.
Meanwhile in Tarrant County, Fort Worth and Arlington were among those earning C's.
Communities can deduce what those grades could have looked like this year for individual campuses: Each school received a preliminary score on a 100-point system that is used to determine each letter grade. A's will be given to those with an overall score of 90 to 100; B's for those 80 to 89; C's for those 70 to 79; D's for those earning 60 to 69. Anything less is an F.
Had campus grades been issued this year, more than half of about 2,200 schools in North Texas would have earned the top two letter grades: 508 would get an A and 741 would have gotten a B.
Significantly, only four DISD campuses -- O.W. Holmes Middle School, Atwell Law Academy and Pease Elementary and nontraditional high school Patton Academic Center -- received the state's lowest rating of "improvement required," down from 43 schools in 2014. Conversely, under the new system 60 schools in DISD received an overall score of 90 or above -- which would be an A -- the most of any district in the state.
Many of the specialty high schools and early college campuses in Dallas, Cedar Hill, Grand Prairie and other districts scored in the high 90s. But about 75 schools in North Texas would be F's if they were graded.
Statewide, of the 829 districts and charters rated, 153 earned an A and 356 earned a B. Only 16 earned an F.
Morath said the new system makes it easier to highlight schools that are doing the best work so their efforts can be copied while also differentiating between those that are making progress and those that need help.
"We have got to embrace this as a tool for continuous improvement," Morath said.
For example, he said, had letter grades for campuses been issued this year, nearly 20 percent of high-poverty schools would have earned an A compared with only 5 percent that would have received an F.
The new system is the most controversial system the state's rolled out since implementing accountability ratings in the 1990s. School superintendents say it oversimplifies education and punishes schools that have the students who struggle most -- those who live in poverty.
And many of the highest-scoring districts -- such as Lovejoy and Frisco -- had the smallest percent of students who are considered economically disadvantaged. But some high-performing districts also include Hurst-Euless-Bedford, where nearly 53 percent of kids are from low-income families.
Morath says the system is the most fair it has ever been because it gives schools credit for making progress and accounts for challenging students.
A look at the new system
The state looks at three major categories for the grades: student achievement, school progress and "closing the gaps."
Student achievement is mostly made up of how well students did on STAAR tests. School progress includes how much improvement students made from one year to the next, or how well they did in relation to comparable campuses, whichever is greater. "Closing the gaps" looks at how well schools do educating children in different subgroups, such as those living in poverty, enrolled in special education or of various racial backgrounds.
Seventy percent of the grade is based on either student achievement or school progress -- whichever is the higher grade -- while closing the gaps makes up 30 percent.
Supporters of letter grades for schools say the new system is more transparent and easier for the public to understand. Former education commissioner Michael Williams, who now is chairman for Texas Aspires, said it will better drive policy to help improve schools quicker.
"Accurate and accessible school and district ratings provide actionable data for educators and the public alike," he said in a statement.
But the parent group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment issued a news release saying the letter grades place even more emphasis on standardized testing.
"The result will be an increased focus on these faulty assessments rather than a move toward the robust education parents want for their children," Theresa Trevino, TAMSA president, said in a statement.
School administrators have been fighting the rollout of the new letter grades since the state decided to move to the new system in 2015. Last year Texas had its first look showing "what if" grades that gave low marks to many typically high-achieving school districts, particularly in Collin County.
Those C's and D's were mostly for "closing the gaps." Last year, the state calculated that based on how well students from low-income families did on STAAR as well as how students in the two lowest-performing racial groups performed on tests.
Now the grade looks at all student subgroups -- such as those in special education, all racial groups and those from low-income families -- giving schools credit not only for how well children did but also how much they improved.
But this year, no district in the northern North Texas suburbs earned a D or F in "closing the gaps." In fact, more than half received A's under the new system, which modified the grading formula to score districts based on how much progress they had made on teaching all student groups from children enrolled in special education to those living in poverty.
Plano ISD, for example, earned a C last year in this category. But this year it received an A with a score of 95.
Dash Weerasinghe, senior executive director for assessment, research and program evaluation at Plano ISD, said last week that he didn't pay attention to the "what if" scores that gave districts a first look at the A-F grading system, adding that it was "too simplistic."
"The only thing we learned from that preliminary rating is that the system had to be changed," he said.
More local results
Trinity Environmental Academy is the only charter school in Texas facing closure at the end of this school year because of its failing grade.
This is the third year in a row the charter -- which is located on the Paul Quinn College campus -- has failed state standards, triggering state law requiring automatic shutdown. Superintendent Michael Hooten said the charter will appeal as some student scores were included in the data that should not have been while others were missing.
The charter launched three years ago in southeast Oak Cliff, where about 90 percent of its students are from low-income families. Nearly 200 students are enrolled in pre-K through fourth and sixth through eighth grades with curriculum largely focused on teaching through the environment.
"We've been in business three years, and in that time we've had to build a school, create a culture and turn it around all at the same time," Hooten said. "The on-ramp for charter schools is a challenge."
The charter will learn its fate before the end of the school year, though officials are exploring merging with another charter as well.
Meanwhile, Wylie ISD was celebrating its A grade with a visit from Morath. The growing Collin County suburb scored a 90. Morath said seeing bright spots like Wylie fills him with "optimism and hope" for the state.
But DeSoto earned an overall D rating. Officials said that masks the progress being made. For example, Meadows Elementary, which had failed state standards in 2016, would have earned a B if graded under the new system for individual campuses this year.
DeSoto has experienced some turmoil in recent months amid the resignation of superintendent David Harris. The board is expected to announce a lone finalist to replace him soon.
"While we are not currently where we want to be, the board looks forward to hiring our new superintendent and instructional leader who will guide us into the future of academic success," board president Carl Sherman Jr. said in a statement.
Fort Worth had 11 schools fail the ratings, the second highest number of failing campuses for a school district behind San Antonio's 16.
The failing schools in Fort Worth include Glencrest 6th Grade, which has failed three years in a row, and Polytechnic High, which failed for the second year. Poly had faced state shutdown for multiple years of failing standards under a previous accountability system but was able to turn around to avoid closure.
Among Fort Worth's successes was John T. White Elementary, which had been rated "improvement required" since it opened 2011. Not only did it pass, it would have earned a B, with an overall score of 85.