Even before Harvey hit Houston, several schools there faced a do-or-die year: Improve and get off the state’s list of chronically failing schools, or be closed down.
Turns out, it’s not that easy to know what makes a passing grade. That’s because the state of Texas is changing how it grades schools, and the system isn’t final yet.
Those state report cards were a big topic at a recent community meeting in Kashmere Gardens. There, principals from schools in the area meet every month to talk about how they’re working to improve their schools. At their first meeting since Harvey, they got up, one by one, and gave updates on their latest ratings from the state.
“We have been a school that’s been at risk for not meeting standard for quite a while, and we did not go into that category, which is great,” said Iliana Perez, principal of Paige Elementary.
Joseph Williams, who leads Key Middle School, reported: “Certainly we want to maintain meeting state accountability and we want to take it up to another notch.”
And another principal, Kashmere High’s Nancy Blackwell, got straight to what’s worrying her about this year. She has no idea exactly how the state will evaluate her school. It’s complicated.
“You were talking about index 1, 2, 3 and 4 is about to change to domains 1, 2 and 3 and ruling things here and there and the standards aren’t set. That’s one reason parents do get a little confused because it’s changing again for 2018,” Blackwell told dozens of educators and community members at the Kashmere Gardens Multi-Service center.
It’s not just parents — it’s school administrators across the state. Unlike when the state often phases in a new rating system, Texas’s formula for this school year isn’t final, even as class is already in session.
“When you don’t know what you’re shooting for, it’s hard to hit a target,” said Carla Stevens, an assistant superintendent with the Houston Independent School District. She studies the complex methods behind Texas’ school grades.
“We don’t know how things are going to be weighted. We don’t know what targets are going to be set. So at this point in time, there is no way that I can predict whether or not a campus is going to come off of improvement required or go on to improvement required,” she explained.
She said that Texas schools won’t know all the details until after state testing starts in the spring. Which makes it even tougher for schools on the state’s “must improve” list.
“We’re at the point where there’s no syllabus, there is no grading rubric, there’s nothing. We just know that we have to keep doing better. And we hope that at the end of the year we will meet that standard,” Stevens said.
For schools like Kashmere High, that moving target is frustrating. It has fallen below state standards for eight years, the longest of any Texas school. This past year, they would have passed if just two students scored higher. Principal Nancy Blackwell said that they plan to appeal their rating.
“Coming close hurts, but coming close doesn’t count,” she said.
Blackwell isn’t dwelling on that. She’s made sure all Kashmere High teachers are certified and even sent some to summer boot-camps. Their campus just finished a renovation, and they’ve added new labs where students can research and apply to colleges.
“What we look at is to overachieve, or go beyond the state average. When I know we’ve gone beyond the state average with our kids, they’ll be ready for anything that comes their way,” Blackwell said.
But what nobody was ready for was Harvey. It flooded much of northeast Houston, including Kashmere Gardens. Community leaders like Huey German-Wilson said that they want state education officials to take the storm into account when they grade schools this year.
“So we’re going to be petitioning the state for those things — to ask that they give us some grace because the children have been devastated in several locations,” she said. “At this point, they are devastated at home. Their community is devastated.”
But she said that she hasn’t “heard a thing” about the state relaxing its accountability standards.
“But typically, what I know is when we had Ike, that they could seriously consider those things when they talk about accountability,” German-Wilson said.
So far, the Texas Education Agency said that it has not decided if it will give struggling schools a break this year.