El Paso School Districts Sue TEA, Halting Release of Accountability Ratings

Some El Paso school leaders believe TEA's plan to change the system was politically motivated.

This is a photo of The Canutillo Independent School District headquarters.
The Canutillo Independent School District headquarters. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Three El Paso school districts achieved a small victory after a Travis County judge in late October temporarily blocked the Texas Education Agency from releasing the 2023 A-F accountability ratings.

That came after dozens of Texas school districts, including the El Paso, Canutillo and San Elizario Independent School Districts, filed a lawsuit against Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, alleging the agency illegally changed the rating system after students had completed standardized testing for the 2022-23 school year.

The rating system gives districts and schools letter grades – A through F – based on a combination of test results, graduation rates and how well students are prepared for a career or college after graduating. Poor performing schools and districts are usually required to go through additional monitoring and interventions and have on some occasions been taken over by the TEA.

Some El Paso school leaders said the TEA’s plan to change the system was a politically motivated attempt to push lawmakers to approve Gov. Greg Abbott’s “school choice” or school voucher program that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private and religious schools. School leaders say the plan will siphon funds based on enrollment numbers away from public schools.

Jeannie Meza-Chavez, superintendent of San Elizario Independent School District, attends a meeting of the school board on Wednesday, Nov. 8. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“The accountability standards were changed to make the districts look like they were not performing,” San Elizario ISD Superintendent Jeannie Meza-Chavez told El Paso Matters. “This would allow the governor to go to the public and say, ‘This is why we need school choice because the schools are underperforming.’”

CISD Superintendent Pedro Galaviz said he felt the change was “designed to create doubt in public education in order to adopt legislation that is going to shed resources to private schools.”

Though a school choice bill failed to get through the Texas House for a third time on Tuesday, Abbott called another special session that same day in an effort to get the legislation passed. The House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment  approved on Friday the latest iteration of school choice legislation, the first time this year that a voucher bill got through a House committee.

A spokesperson for the TEA, Melissa Holmes, said the agency has appealed the court’s decision to halt the release of the A-F Accountability ratings.

“This ruling completely disregards the laws of this state and for the foreseeable future, prevents any A-F performance information from being issued to help millions of parents and educators improve the lives of our students,” Holmes said in a statement. “Though about 10% of our school system leaders disagreed with the methods used in A-F enough to file this lawsuit, the complete absence of public performance information means that 100% of our school systems cannot take actions based on these ratings, stunting the academic growth of millions of Texas kids.”

Canutillo ISD was among the first school districts to join the lawsuit when it was filed in late August, citing “concerns about its political motivations and its potential to advance the agenda of school vouchers.”

The San Elizario Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Sept. 20 to join the lawsuit, citing identical concerns.

EPISD voted 4-3 on Sept. 12 to join the lawsuit after a closed discussion.  Trustees Alex Cuellar, Joshua Acevedo, Isabel Hernandez and Leah Hanany voted in favor and trustees Israel Irrobali, Valerie Ganelon Beals, and Daniel Call voted against the motion.

Though the TEA provided school districts with metrics and procedures for the rating system in August 2022, the lawsuit alleges that the agency broke the Texas Education Code by introducing new rules that were not set to be announced until the 2023-24 school year.

One of the changes, for example, increased the threshold in the percentage of seniors who enroll in college, pursue a non-college career or enter the military, the Texas Tribune reported. The change in the college and readiness portion of the evaluation would have used 2022 graduate outcomes for this year’s ratings, according to the Tribune.

Starting in this year’s ratings, several industry based certifications will also be phased out and only 20% of graduates who earn them will be considered career ready, according to the 2023 Accountability Manual released in October. This includes dental hygienist licensures, aerospace technician certifications and a number of automotive service certifications.

The new rating system also changed how school district scores are calculated. Previously, 40% of the district rating came from standardized test results; 40% came from the college, career, or military readiness rating; and 20% came from graduation rates. Now, the results from each campus will count proportionately toward the district’s ratings based on enrollment numbers of third- to 12th-grade students.

Some Texas school leaders were concerned that without preparation, these new metrics could lower their district’s rating and won’t be comparable to previous ratings.

Canutillo ISD Superintendent Pedro Galaviz. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“Our systems and processes were based on last year’s rules, so when our commissioner wants to create these new rules and apply last year’s class it’s just unfair,” Galaviz said. “The system being proposed by the commissioner was drawn up after our kids had already been tested, so we’re in the dark as to how they were going to calculate ratings. A school district could perform just as well on the test this year as they did last year and earn a much worse grade.”

In 2022 and 2019, CISD received an “A” in its overall accountability rating. School districts were not rated in 2020 and 2021 when the rating system was paused amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the previous measurements, Meza-Chavez said she is certain that SEISD would have retained its “B” rating. After the measurements were changed, she would have expected SEISD to drop below a “B” grade.

EPISD received a “B” in its overall accountability rating in 2019 and 2022.

Galaviz also expressed concern that the new system would allow the TEA to take over school districts for their low ratings.

Earlier this year, the TEA took over the Houston Independent School District — the largest school district in Texas — partially in response to years of poor academic outcomes from one of its high schools. The school in question, Phillis Wheatley High School, received an “F” rating in 2019 and a “C” in 2022.

In 2019, EPISD had a number of schools that scored below a “D” rating, including the now closed Alta Vista and Michael Schuster Elementary Schools and Canyon Hills Middle School. Canyon Hills received a “D” rating in 2019, with a scaled score of 64 out of 100. In 2022, the school did not get a letter rating but got a scaled score of 62.

Canyon Hills Middle School has been designated a comprehensive campus, meaning it was rated a D or F under the state’s accountability system. (Ramon Bracamontes/El Paso Matters)

In June, teachers and staff at Canyon Hills had to reapply and interview for their positions as part of an effort to improve its performance that EPISD dubbed a “redesign.”

“(EPISD) acknowledges the importance of educational accountability. We are advocating for a comprehensive and equitable rating system as well as an appropriate amount of time for school districts to meet the requirements outlined,” EPISD spokesperson Pablo Villa said about the lawsuit in a written statement.

Meza-Chavez said the lawsuit was a way to hold Commissioner Morath accountable.

“We were holding our teachers and students accountable to what the standards and measurements were before, and when the commissioner changed them, that was unfair,” she said. “You don’t change the rules of the game after the game has been played.”

“We all have dedicated teachers working their tails off, and we just want to make sure that the work that they do is assessed fairly and that the student work reflects the reality of the district. That it’s not some bureaucrat in Austin dictating how to read data in order to best suit a political agenda,” Galaviz added.

The release of the A-F accountability ratings was initially set for Sept. 28, but was postponed for a month to “allow for a further re-examination of the baseline data used in the calculation of Progress to ensure ratings reflect the most appropriate goals for students,” according to a news release from the TEA.

For now, school districts will need to wait on the results of the appeal to see if their accountability ratings will be released.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today