Losing the forest for the trees

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“You can’t see the forest for the trees.” In many ways, this trope can describe our state’s newest plan for public schools. Required by federal law, Texas’ ESSA plan will both steer and drive school quality and the outlook of the students those schools serve for years to come.

Wonks get worked up by plans like these; your average Texan doesn’t. The reality, however, is that the decisions about the plan and the influence it will have are incredibly impactful. Let’s take this opportunity for all it’s worth.

This week, a group of national experts brought together by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success released their review of Texas’ ESSA plan. When translated to a grade, it’s a solid “D.”

Where did things go awry? The trees.

In an effort to appease school districts, the legislature recently allowed school ratings to be altered by locally selected measures. Local efforts certainly affect school quality and parent satisfaction. Unfortunately, as the report aptly points out, this undermines the comparability of ratings from school to school and district to district. It also compromises the validity and reliability of A-F grades.

We also have a problem with goal-setting. While our state’s ambitious 60x30TX plan indicates where we need to go, Texas’ ESSA plan lacks aggressive progress targets. Essentially, the state will continue to set too low a bar for both advancement and graduation.

In addition, students will continue to struggle with massive “proficiency gaps.” By setting our cut scores far too low, we avoid holding back thousands of students or requiring them to do more to graduate high school. That also means droves of students will continue to meet the state’s expectations while not actually being prepared for success.

Then there’s the issue of growth. During the 85th Legislature, lawmakers attempted to make summative ratings for schools fairer by allowing them to include the better of achievement or progress (as our current system does). In theory this works, but it has the unintended consequence of encouraging schools to focus on one or the other. If we maintain this practice, many students will continue to be left behind.

Perhaps the most troubling decision in this plan is its subgroup minimum group size. While it makes sense for statistical purposes to increase sample sizes for subpopulations, a group size of 25 leaves vast swaths of students out of calculations. And if the purpose of accountability systems is to identify areas of need, we must measure student performance more accurately.

There’s a reason each of these “trees” came out looking the way it did, but there’s a forest we must tend. That forest, the complex system of policies that drive school improvement and advance equity for all students, will serve generations of Texans with sky-high aspirations and the potential to achieve them.
Luckily, we still have time. The issues that led to a shaky review of our plan can be addressed.

We must make bold, ambitious choices in the coming years to rapidly improve public education in Texas. Policymakers should coalesce around the goals of 60x30TX and hold schools accountable for preparing students who are up to the challenges ahead. That means being thoughtful and meticulous about how we measure performance, regardless of the discomfort we might experience.

Policy is rarely sexy. Compliance with federal education policy is arguably the least sexy. But our future depends on making the right choices during that process. Each and every student in Texas is depending on us to get this right.

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