More Central Texas school districts join lawsuit seeking to prevent TEA from retroactively changing performance ratings

Hearing postponed until Oct. 10
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 5:41 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - UPDATE: A court hearing in a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency’s proposed changes to school accountability ratings has been postponed from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10, a source with knowledge of the situation told KWTX.

Waco ISD, Temple ISD, Academy ISD, La Vega ISD, Rogers ISD and Belton ISD are now officially listed as intervenor school districts in a lawsuit filed by several other school districts in Texas challenging the Texas Education Agency’s decision to retroactively change performance ratings for the 2022-23 school year, court documents state.

Belton ISD was the most recent school district in Central Texas to join the lawsuit directed at the TEA. The Board of Trustees held a special meeting Friday, Sept. 15 to approve the decision to join the lawsuit.

“The TEA and Education Commissioner Mike Morath violated state law when they missed key deadlines in changing the state accountability system,” Belton ISD Board President Manuel Alcozer, said. “In fact, the commissioner had an obligation before August 15 to publish both the accountability standards along with publishing the district and school ratings.”

Frustrations with the TEA follow months of the board vocalizing the need for accountability reform. The district and board members spoke with legislators and sent letters.

“We specifically expressed concerns regarding TEA’s delay in finalizing the accountability system and the need for districts to have advanced notice,” said Superintendent Dr. Matt Smith.

The Killeen ISD and Copperas Cove ISD school boards on Sept. 12 both voted to join the lawsuit and intend to file to become intervenor school districts.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, named as the defendant in the lawsuit, is accused of “substantially changing” the TEA’s A-F Accountability System “on the fly” and also “changing the way students’ academic growth is measured in a manner that diminishes recognition of the students’ progress,” the intervenor school districts claim.

“Because the intervenor school districts did not have advance notice of the indicators and standards being used in the evaluation process, they could not take action to satisfy the new state standards,” the districts further claim.

The intervenor school districts said Morath’s implementation of the new accountability system not only “contradicts the tenets of fundamental fairness, but also violates state law.”

“We just want, desperately, to understand the changes before they’re made. We want the playbook, right? We want to know the rules to the game. We also want our community to not be considered a failing district because of some arbitrary numbers set by TEA,” Killeen ISD Superintendent, Dr. Jo Ann Fey, said Wednesday.

The Texas Education Agency on Sept. 12 announced a temporary delay in the release of 2023 A-F accountability ratings for districts and campuses. The ratings were originally scheduled to be released on Sept. 28.

The postponement of ratings for approximately one month “will 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,” the TEA said.

“The state has created a system using really complicated methodology to grade schools that doesn’t make sense. That system was changed on us without proper notification according to the Texas Education Code,” said Waco ISD Superintendent, Dr. Susan Kincannon, “Our scores have increased and yet our ratings are projected to decrease.”

WEB Xtra: Megan Boyd explains how the TEA’s proposal to revamp its ratings system would lower performance ratings for many school districts and campuses even though their performance improved last school year.

“When students and teachers take the STAAR test in the spring, they deserve to know how it will be graded. It’s unfair, and quite frankly, it violates state law for TEA to change the accountability rules months later,” Kincannon said when Waco ISD announced it was joining the lawsuit.

“Even today, TEA still has not given school districts the final rules explaining how the results of last spring’s tests will be measured for accountability ratings,” Kincannon further said, “I am encouraged that our school board decided to join with other school districts around the state to challenge TEA’s decision to put politics ahead of student learning.”

Temple ISD Superintendent Dr. Bobby Ott, in a letter to staff, said the TEA’s move “is a clear attempt to discredit public education.”

Ott further said the measures “are consistent with an overall agenda to disparage the hard work of our students, teachers, staff.”

The Temple ISD Board of Trustees authorized TISD to enter into a lawsuit against TEA. “Temple ISD will stand up and contest these actions. The hard work and successes of our students, families and staff are worth going to the mat,” Ott wrote in the letter.

The superintendent believes the new ratings will confuse the public. According to Ott, Temple ISD improved in 19 of 23 indicators across the district, and Temple High School improved in all 7 out of 7 measures, “but the district and campus each stand to drop a letter grade in the ratings” under the changes to accountability ratings.

“The model of ready, aim, fire when it comes to standard setting has become ready, fire, aim. Texas is better than that,” Ott said.

In the original lawsuit against the TEA, the plaintiff school districts claim they are trying to prevent the Morath from “unlawfully lowering A–F performance ratings for the 2022–2023 school year by retroactively changing the rules.”

Morath’s move will “arbitrarily lower performance ratings for many school districts and campuses even though their performance improved,” the plaintiffs claimed, echoing Ott’s concerns.

The commissioner “is assigning A–F performance ratings to school districts and campuses for the 2022–2023 school year even though the ‘measures, methods, and procedures’ he is using to calculate those ratings were not provided to school districts at the beginning of the 2022–2023 school year as required by the statute,” the plaintiffs further argue.

Timeline to consider accountability rating changes
Timeline to consider accountability rating changes(Megan Boyd for KWTX)

According to the petition, the Texas Education Code states the Commissioner must provide a simple and accessible document explaining “the accountability performance measures, methods, and procedures that will be applied for that school year.”

Morath, the plaintiffs argue, could comply with the legal requirement by “applying the measures, methods, and procedures that he finalized, published, and adopted on August 11, 2022.”

Instead, the plaintiffs claim, he “intends to apply different rules and methodologies that have not yet been finalized and will only be finalized during the 2023–2024 school year.”

“If the Commissioner is allowed to retroactively apply these new methodologies,” instead of applying the accountability measures already in place, “he will irreparably harm Texas school districts by assigning performance ratings that will artificially lower these ratings even though school districts have worked hard to improve their performance,” the petition states.

KWTX was invited to a call with Commissioner Morath this summer to discuss changes to the accountability rating system. At the time, Morath was asked about the retroactive nature of the changes being considered during the same year the changes would be applied.

“It’s a great question. This is actually the way that the system has always worked from a statutory perspective. The agency goes through a rule making process, the agency publishes those rules on a proposed basis, typically, around May, and then they become adopted around July, August timeframe for final rule issuance any given year,” the commissioner said.

Morath said this has the case for the past 30 years in Texas “so there’s nothing retroactive about it.”

“The ratings are issued and the rules are applied for the years that the rules are developed. One of the things we have done to try to make sure everyone is on the same page is we started the process communicating about the refresh, in particular, I think two full school years ago,” Morath explained, “So to try and make sure everybody knew whatever changes were coming in proposed rules, we made sure to communicate about that well before the formal rule making process to be as clear as possible with schools.”

WEB XTRA: Original Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Application for Temporary Restraining Order and Temporary Injunctive Relief