This story was orginally published by The Austin American Statesman, and can be found here.

Texas schools with high percentages of low-income students tended to earn poor scores in the state’s revamped school rating system, while schools with more affluent students tended to earn higher marks.

The disparity highlights the extent to which the grading system relies on standardized test scores. Education experts and school officials have long noted that students living in poverty tend to per form poorer on standardized tests than their peers from more affluent families. Tying school ratings to test results can wrongly suggest that some schools are providing a subpar education, critics say.

Eight percent of the schools with more than 80% of low-income students received an F from the Texas Education Agency, according to the state ratings released Aug. 15. No schools with 20% or fewer low-income students received an F. Meanwhile, 82% of wealthiest schools received an A, and 9% of poorest schools received an A.

In Central Texas, the discrepancy between the poorest and wealthiest schools was even more pronounced — 14% of schools with the highest rates of low-income students received an F and 3% received an A, according to an American-Statesman analysis of 14 school districts. None of the region’s wealthiest schools received worse than a B.

“We continue to see the strong correlation with poverty and the accountability system as a whole, but STAAR in particular,” said Debra Ready, executive director of accountability for the Austin school district, referring to State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness testing. “Our students who come from a background of high poverty face challenges around health and safety. So those emotional and social challenges and the cognitive lags and … the chronic stressors those kids face, those are not easily overcome.”

Put another way, 81% of students at F-rated campuses statewide and in Central Texas were low-income. At A-rated campuses across the state, 34% of students were low-income and at A-rated campuses in Central Texas, 36% of students were low-income.

The correlation between  campuses’ student poverty rates and the grades the campuses received was stronger in Central Texas than the correlation between the two variables on a statewide level. Austin’s distinction as one of the most economically segregated metro areas in the country means the link between income inequality and disparity in school performance is even more pronounced in the Austin area than on a statewide level.

“Poverty is not an excuse, but it is a factor,” said Dee Carney, an educational consultant and accountability specialist with consulting firm HillCo Partners. “The system is a work in progress. It’s not yet recognizing effective schools as much as it is recognizing where wealthy students or poor students are located.”

Emphasis on STAAR

District administrators said they were implementing improvements in their schools that were slapped with F’s, but they questioned whether the schools were fairly evaluated.

Officials with the Manor school district, where 72% of students are from low-income families, say that campuses with high rates of low-income students face social challenges that are more difficult to overcome and often out of the control of teachers and administrators.

“Research shows that children from high-poverty homes don’t have as much have access to literature, have not developed as much vocabulary. Sometimes it’s just about basic needs like food and shelter and lights; those can all be challenges for families struggling financially, ” said Michael Perkins, executive director of school improvement and professional development for the Manor school district.

The Manor school district vastly improved its overall performance from a D last year to a B this year, but it still saw Manor Middle School, where 77% of students are low-income, earn failing marks for a third year in a row. The school’s principal has been replaced. District officials are conducting more training of teachers to better monitor individual student performance.

Districtwide, officials have hired more personnel to engage parents in their children’s education, offer free breakfast at all campuses and free lunch at five campuses, and implemented full-day prekindergarten three years ago. District officials expect full-day pre-K to improve education among students but say it will take years for the results to be reflected under the accountability system.

By focusing on the STAAR, the state’s accountability system doesn’t reflect those improvements, Manor Superintendent Royce Avery said.

“The F doesn’t truly mean that a school has totally missed the point. The system that we have to use to account for may not necessarily reflect what’s going in the building, ” he said.

Thirteen of the 20 campuses in Central Texas that received an F had a low-income student rate of more than 80%. At those 13 campuses, about half of students on average failed the reading and math STAAR in the spring.

The state grades elementary and middle schools solely on their students’ STAAR scores while the grades for high schools are also based on graduation rates as well as how many students were pre pared for college, a career or the military.

No Central Texas high school received an F. Only 18 of the 402 schools statewide that received an F were high schools.

State lawmakers this year considered requiring the Texas Education Agency to look at measurements other than test performance in assigning letter grades, including students’ participation in extracurricular activities and pre-K enrollment. The legislation never made it out of the more conservative Texas Senate.

“We missed an opportunity to expand the accountability system to those nontest-based indicators. That’s just the reality that student performance is always impacted by factors that can’t be attributed to schools and teaching, and it’s what the children bring with them that plays a part,” Carney said.

The state accountability system measures improvement on the STAAR, not just performance during the most recent year. But Carney said the fact that low-poverty schools still tend to earn higher grades exposes the need for more fairness in the accountability system.

She noted that studies have shown that the STAAR is test ing students on material above grade level, questioning the STAAR’s accuracy in measuring student performance.

Many school districts across the state are starting to evaluate their schools based on a locally developed accountability model that include metrics that parents, teachers, students and other community members find important. Administrators hope eventually that community-based accountability systems will provide another perspective on school quality.

Gaps in Central Texas

The correlation between campus grades and student poverty is stronger in Central Texas than it is on a statewide level, according to the Statesman analysis.

Researchers say a contributing factor to the relatively large grade disparity in the region is that the Austin metro area is the country’s most economically segregated large metro area based on income, education and occupation, according to the University of Toronto-based Martin Prosperity Institute.

Most schools that received F’s are located to the east of Interstate 35, and no failing schools are west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).

Segregation is associated with income inequality. In Austin, those in the service industry have on average three to five times less money to spend after paying for housing than their wealthier peers, according to the institute.

“If you think about how do you spend the money that you have left after housing, some of that may look like tutoring, supports for kids in terms of extracurricular activities. All of that starts to … paint a pretty interesting picture,” said Steven Pedigo, a University of Texas professor and director of the Urban Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Austin school district parents have organized to promote racial and socioeconomic integration of their schools, believing that doing so will improve the academic performance of low-income students and improve cultural awareness, critical thinking and better health among all students.

Of 114 Austin district schools analyzed, 17 are socio-economically balanced, meaning the school has between 38% and 68% low-income students, according to the advocacy group Integrated Schools, Austin. The other 97 socio-economically segregated schools educate 84% (65,570) of Austin students.

“Students who attend well-integrated schools give apiece of themselves to the school and they receive parts of other students, meaning there’s cultural learning happening, there’s empathetic learning happening, and there’s critical learning happening about societal mechanisms,” said Dusty Harshman, an Austin parent and member of Integrated Schools, Austin.

Other factors

Two schools in the Bastrop district — Lost Pines and Red Rock elementary schools — received an F. About 85% of students at both schools are low-income. Because the schools only go to the fourth grade, not to the fifth grade like other elementary schools in the region, Lost Pines and Red Rock had less opportunities to improve student scores, which contributed to their failing marks, said Marisol Rocha, the Bastrop district’s director of federal programs and school improvement.

“That makes it very difficult for an elementary school to look at progress when it rides on one grade level — third to fourth,” Rocha said. “We need to focus on progress regardless, but it makes it more difficult for these campuses in particular.”

Rocha said these and other factors, not just low-income student rates, can influence performance under the state accountability system, including teacher quality, how often students move from school to school and other student demographics.

Chris Jackson, executive director of research, data, and accountability at the Cleburne school district, has analyzed relationships between certain factors and the grades that traditional school districts statewide received from the Texas Education Agency last year.

He found that the strongest correlation existed between school district grades and the percentage of low-income students, followed by the correlation with teacher turnover, percentage of students at risk of dropping out of school, student mobility and teacher experience.

“There are some things that are out of the control of the district, and then there maybe some things that the district has some influence on as well — teacher retention, teacher experience. Those things have positive correlations,” Jackson said.

Bastrop school officials acknowledge they have room to improve at Lost Pines and Red Rock elementary schools, and they’re starting by implementing full-day pre – K at those two campuses this year and offering more student mentoring.

Multiple middle schools in the Austin school district received F’s this year. District officials are training more teachers on literacy and math strategies, giving some of those middle school students a Chromebook equipped to access the internet that they can take home, and expanding English and math classes from 60 minutes to 90 minutes at many of those failing middle schools.

Graham Elementary

Gilbert Hicks, Austin’s associate superintendent of schools, is steadfast in his belief that students can overcome the educational challenges associated with living in poverty as long as they receive the right support.

He said Austin schools have the potential to do that and that Graham Elementary School in Northeast Austin serves as an example.

“If we have some of the mindset and the philosophy that they have at Graham, if we close some of those achievement gaps, if we focus hard on the academic achievement of every single child, if we don’t accept excuses, if we practice inclusivity, if we continue to ensure that every single child gets what they need and meet them where they are at, then we can take poverty out of the equation,” Hicks said.

Statewide, 296 high-poverty traditional public and charter schools achieved an A rating this year.

Graham, which has long been a high-performing school under the accountability system, received an A this year, even though 82% of its students are low-income.

Hicks and Graham Principal Ercilia Paredes attribute the success to daily monitoring of the progress of individual students, emphasizing social emotional learning, encouraging learning through projects, and combining literacy with different subjects, including math, reading and social studies.

Students learn certain vocabulary words to improve reading comprehension, acting out the words to build understanding rather than through rote memorization.

The school’s motto is inscribed throughout the hallways and in classrooms: Show up! Work Hard! Read!

Paredes singles out the school’s novel studies program as one reason the school is so successful. Students starting in the second grade read 15 books each year carefully selected by campus reading specialist Olga Montee. For each book, Montee creates reading guides filled with comprehension questions similar to those found in the STAAR. Students create projects, give presentations about them and take field trips associated with the books they’re reading.

Graham has been at the center of debate about whether its program should be replicated across the district. Hicks said it’s not appropriate to force all schools into a one-size-fits-all approach while critics accuse the school of “drilling and killing” with tests and forcing non-English-speaking students to abandon their native language to become fluent in English, according to an in-depth report by KUT.

Hicks and Paredes dismiss that characterization of the school.

“Success breeds success,” Hicks said. “Kids who come to Graham Elementary School know they are at a successful school. They want to be part of that success, and they try even harder to make sure they maintain it, and they do it in a very healthy way.” 

How the state’s A-F system works 

Districts and schools are measured in three categories: 

  • “Student achievement” measures how well students performed on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. For high schools, it also measures how well students performed on college, career and military readiness measures, as well as graduation rates.
  • “School progress” consists of two subcategories that measure how many students improved on the STAAR, as well as school and district performance compared with other campuses and districts with similar percentages of low-income students. Only the subcategory with the higher score will count toward the overall school progress score.
  • “Closing the gap” measures how well students performed based on their race or ethnicity, income level, disability and other factors that might affect learning. For high schools, it also measures how well these different types of students performed on college, career and military readiness measures, as well as graduation rates.

    Only the higher grade in the school progress and student achievement categories is counted. That higher grade counts for 70 percent of the overall campus or district grade. The closing the gap score counts for 30 percent of the overall grade.