Fort Worth ISD joins several others in lawsuit against TEA over accountability ratings

The Fort Worth school district is joining several other districts across the state in a lawsuit that claims the pending changes to the state’s A-F accountability rating system will harm districts and schools, even if performance has improved.

The school board voted 8-1 to join the suit, with board member Kevin Lynch dissenting, during a special meeting on Tuesday. Fort Worth ISD’s decision follows neighboring Dallas ISD, which joined the lawsuit on Thursday, along with other North Texas districts such as Proper ISD and Red Oak ISD. Crowley ISD was among the original seven districts that filed the suit.

Fort Worth Superintendent Angélica Ramsey told reporters after the meeting that a “transparent and fair” process is needed when the Texas Education Agency implements its accountability system.

“We appreciate the fact that (the school board is) willing… to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with school districts across the state saying, ‘We want to be held accountable, but we want to know how we’re going to be held accountable before the students take the (STAAR) test,’” Ramsey said.

The suit filed on Aug. 23 in Travis County against Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath argues that Morath “cannot change the goalposts on school districts by creating new measures, methods, and procedures throughout the school year and then decide to apply them retroactively… Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Commissioner is attempting to do for the 2022–2023 school year.”

The TEA doesn’t comment on pending litigation, agency spokesperson Melissa Holmes told the Star-Telegram.

TEA is delaying release of accountability ratings

Districts are asking for an injunction to stop the TEA from issuing the A-F grades that are based on three categories: student achievement, school progress and closing the gaps. There are multiple indicators within these categories, but the focus has been on the potential changes of how student growth is calculated on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test, known as STAAR.

The standardized test weighs heavily on a district’s and school’s accountability rating.

On Sept. 12, the TEA announced it would be delaying the release of the ratings that were originally scheduled for Sept. 28 by about a month for “further re-examination of the baseline data used in the calculation of (school) progress to ensure ratings reflect the most appropriate goals for students.”

“The final ratings methodology will be posted once this analysis of the growth data is complete, and about two weeks later, A-F ratings will be issued for parents, educators, and the public to use to help Texas schools continue to improve,” according to a TEA news release.

In January, the TEA published newly proposed cut points to existing methodologies as part of a “refresh” required by state law.

“However, since that time, statewide growth data for the 2022-23 school year has become available. Analysis of that growth data shows that the 2021-22 growth was more anomalous than expected,” according to the TEA.

This prompted the month-long delay as the agency looks closer at academic growth within the school progress category, in addition to the closing the gaps category.

Speakers support and oppose joining lawsuit

Fort Worth ISD parent Jennifer Nelson said she was supportive of the district joining the suit and felt the TEA’s decision to make changes after-the-fact was “subversive and with malicious intent for the benefit of defunding and disabling our schools, our children and our public educators.”

“I do agree that we need to look at criteria changing but you need to implement it in an intelligent and systematic manner,” she told board members.

In contrast, speaker Joe Palmer questioned whether joining the suit would be a wise financial decision for the district and whether it would help school districts win their case.

“The TEA may be way off line on this thing. But a lawsuit is not the way to go.” He said. “Find out how much this is going to cost before you get into it. And I think you know, as sure as I’m standing here talking to you, that you’re not going to know the total amount.”

This past school year marked the first time students took a newly reformatted test that was completely online. As a result, officials were not surprised to see scores drop, specifically in reading for third graders, which is a critical point in childrens’ educational careers for knowing how to read proficiently. Officials also attributed the dip to lingering learning impacts from COVID-19.

A revamp of state testing and how it ties into the accountability system has been overdue, according to Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas. The nonprofit organization pushes for the removal of “high-stakes testing consequences for students” and works to incorporate other indicators into Texas’ accountability ratings system with less emphasis on STAAR.

“Our schools do a lot more than (STAAR). They do extra curricular, co-curricular activities. They do special programs and fine arts… There’s family and student engagement surveys and health and safety surveys,” Popinski told the Star-Telegram. “There’s a lot of indicators that you can wrap into an accountability system.”

“If you kind of look at it, though, as a whole… We want a lot from our school districts. We want more than just a test. We want our students to graduate (and) not only to be ready for college and career, but life,” he added.