Texas attempts to advance equity by including a sizeable equity section as part of district grant applications. This will prompt districts to choose from strategies that address areas of inequity, including gender-specific bias and mobility, among others. In addition, the grant applications indicate that a strong submission includes a plan for supporting specific student sub-populations. There are still questions on how the state will ensure that districts remain committed to supporting underserved students.
The “Lone Star Governance” program for school board members may be the strongest piece of Texas’ school improvement efforts. The program emphasizes the development of a clear theory of action, awareness of how board time is used, and evaluation of the superintendent. In addition, Texas’ alignment of school improvement processes with state legislative goals will help districts understand the availability and use of state funds for school improvement.
Texas needs to clarify the state’s approach to school improvement beyond grant-specific requirements. More information is needed on the support offered by the Education Services Centers and how the state’s broader improvement and transformation program fits together.
How well does the state’s approach to school improvement include focused attention on supporting underserved students and closing the achievement gap? Does the state require LEAs to maintain an equity focus in their school improvement plans, activities and resource allocations?
Texas does attempt to ensure the districts are focused on supporting underserved students. Texas includes a sizeable equitable access and participation indicators section as a part of the district application, which prompts districts to choose among strategies that address areas such as gender-specific bias, gang- and drug-related issues, visual and hearing impairments, absenteeism, and mobility. In addition, the grant application materials do indicate that a strong response includes a plan for supporting specific student sub-populations.
However, it’s unclear how these strategies fit with rest of the application or with school improvement efforts beyond the grant. In addition, with a focus on local control it raises the question of how the state will ensure that districts are committed to supporting underserved students and closing the achievement gaps without a clearer equity thread in the school improvement materials.
The state could also give more attention to supporting districts in supporting schools that are consistently underperforming for groups of students.
How is the state thoughtfully leveraging ESSA’s flexibility to put in place the necessary policies and procedures that create an enabling environment for effective and sustained school improvement, and that consider state/local lessons learned from past efforts? What parts of the state’s turnaround strategy or guidance to LEAs were strongest or exemplary?
Texas was very thoughtful in aligning its school improvement process with the goals outlined through state legislation. Whereas the relationship between state statutes and federal funding streams can be confusing, this should help school districts understand and use available state-funded resources for school improvement. Furthermore, the state’s strategy includes some bold measures such as creating a new staffing model and closing and reopening schools. Districts have flexibility in selecting a model that fits the local context of any given community. The state has also created flexibility around funding by providing planning grants to districts. These planning grants should allow time and resources for engagement of stakeholders and allow for districts to engage in more strategic discussions prior to full implementation.
The “Lone Star Governance” program for school board members may be the strongest piece of Texas’ school improvement efforts, a potential model for other states. Among other things, the program emphasizes the development of a clear theory of action, awareness of how board time is used, and evaluation of the superintendent. In addition, the state’s six transformation models will be worth watching.
How can the state improve its turnaround efforts? What parts of the state’s strategy or guidance to LEAs were unclear? What risks and challenges might the state face with its current approach?
Based on the materials reviewed, the biggest improvement would be to help clarify the state’s overall approach beyond grant-specific requirements. Currently, it is hard to evaluate the quality of the state’s efforts because there are no details provided about the nature of the support provided by the regional Education Service Centers with only the application and rubric for school improvement plans available. Better alignment between support for planning and for implementation would be helpful. The grant applications indicate that districts cannot apply for both a transformation planning and a transformation implementation grant for the same campus, which seems like it would defeat the purpose of a planning grant. While the state has provided many useful tools and resources for districts in planning for improvement, those available for review are somewhat disorganized and disconnected, placing the burden on district leaders for weaving together the various pieces of the state’s broader improvement approach.
How well does the state articulate a coherent vision or theory of action that drives their school improvement efforts? Is this vision aligned with the state’s accountability system and goals for closing the achievement gap?
Texas’s theory of action centers on empowering the districts to make the decisions necessary for their identified schools. The state has developed a number of models to support a broad and coherent statewide improvement effort. However, the manner in which these materials are organized makes it difficult to know how they work together to provide additional flexibility to local districts. For instance, the state’s application places more emphasis on each district developing its own theory of action and requires the district to describe how their strategies align with, and accelerate, their broader local strategy. This approach will likely lead to some variability in the boldness and quality of local approach. In addition, without a concerted state effort to build local capacity to take advantage of the autonomy the state has provided to local districts, some districts may continue to struggle.
Texas recently created an “effective schools framework,” and is working to build capacity in implementing it through its Education Service Centers. As a part of its strategy, Texas has created a portfolio of options for planning and implementation for schools receiving school improvement funds. The state has identified a list of models for which districts and schools could select, which is an approach to school improvement that may meet the needs districts. The models are part of the state’s vision for allowing local communities to drive school improvement through the lens of their local context.
It is concerning, however, how disconnected the state’s accountability system seems to be from the statewide school improvement efforts. For example, the materials available for review suggest that roughly 33 schools will receive school transformation grants, whereas the state’s accountability system will identify a much larger number of schools. It’s unclear from the materials reviewed what support Texas will provide to and what expectations they will set for the schools beyond the few dozen receiving those grants. In addition, the school transformation grant application requires districts to describe how they will evaluate school performance and identify low-performing schools. It is not clear how that will overlap or conflict with the state’s existing accountability system. Because of outstanding issues with the state’s accountability system (i.e., lack of sufficient focus on subgroup performance, lack of comparability across districts), there is room for improvement regarding alignment between accountability and school improvement.
In addition, supporting materials appear to be disparate and may be somewhat cumbersome to locate for local districts. It might be helpful to streamline or simplify access in order for district and school leaders to navigate them more easily.
Is the state allocating funding in a way that is strategic and maximizes resources? Are LEAs expected to prioritize improvement efforts that address the underlying performance issues?
Texas is allocating funding through a competitive process which could allow Texas to prioritize funding by need and efficacy of the proposed improvement plans. Notably, the state is providing a number of planning grants aligned to the state’s multiple improvement models. In total, Texas will award at least 33 grants ranging in amounts ranging from $300,000 to $1 million in the form of planning or implementation grants. Given Texas’s emphasis on local control as the primary driver behind school improvement, it will be critical whether the programs that will are funded based on merit or only completeness of the plan. As a part of both grant processes, Texas will support a range of programs including partnerships between traditional and charter schools, programs to implement dramatic staffing initiatives across multiple schools and to close or reopen. Additional information is needed to understand how the state will support districts who are not awarded competitive funds.
The state has established a number of processes to ensure budgets submitted by districts prioritize efforts that address their underlying performance issues. However, the lack of clarity in how these materials are organized makes it more difficult to understand how the state will evaluate the quality of district plans and allocate funding strategically to address district performance issues. In addition, it’s not clear from the application what criteria the state will use to approve or deny improvement plans, which could be a powerful lever for shaping district improvement efforts.
Is the state applying rigorous criteria and review processes to ensure resources will be used to support effective school improvement efforts? Is the state prioritizing funding to LEAs who demonstrate the greatest need for school improvement funding (including LEAs with a high percentage of CSI and TSI schools) and the strongest commitment to school improvement?
Texas’ application includes a needs assessment and project plan. However, the state’s scoring rubric, which assigns points to different elements, reflects whether these elements are present or not in the application rather than their potential quality or efficacy. While the state does provide review criteria with which applications will be evaluated, it is unclear how the final scores will be used to determine which applications receive funding.
The criteria the state will use to award funding to districts do not necessarily ensure that resources will be used to support improvement efforts in the districts and schools with the greatest need. Although the grant criteria awards points to districts that use their funding in a comprehensive or targeted school, the state seems to allow districts to use the funding for schools that are not identified as comprehensive or targeted as long as the district has at least one school identified for improvement. The criteria also award points to districts with high percentages of comprehensive and targeted schools, but it may not be enough points for the state to prioritize funding in those places. For example, districts can receive three times as many points for partnering with an institution of higher education than for having a high percentage of comprehensive and targeted schools. Finally, the state does not distinguish between comprehensive or targeted schools in its criteria.
Does the state have a robust, data-driven process to monitor LEAs’ implementation of the school improvement plans within their district? Did the state establish clear milestones to ensure improvement over time, and within four years?
To Texas’ credit, asking districts to identify success metrics upfront is an exemplary practice. However, it’s not clear whether infrastructure at the state is sufficient to support continuous improvement, monitoring, or evaluation. It is also unclear how the state will use the data from the accountability system effectively to support school improvement. The state application asks districts to describe how they will self-monitor their improvement plans, but is thin on what the state will do to monitor and evaluate implementation.
Texas does identify some performance measures that grant applicants must report on such as student achievement, school operations measures (average daily attendance, student year-to-year persistence, teacher retention), and student growth based on formative assessment, but does not require year on year targets to ensure improvement over time or what the state will do to support schools if they miss their milestones. It appears that instead, this responsibility will lie with the the regional support centers (ESCs) who are tasked with supporting the monitoring of implementation at the district level. It is unclear what type of capacity and support the ESCs have or are being provided with, and how they will support the districts in their efforts.
The grant application calls for schools to say how they will implement additional action following unsuccessful implementation of the school improvement plan after a number of years determined by the district. It is unclear which schools this refers to (comprehensive vs. targeted) and the process by which schools will know if they have not hit their milestones. Additionally, having districts determine ahead of time what they will do if schools do not make sufficient improvement prevents districts from using lessons learned during unsuccessful implementation to inform the actions the district will take.
To what extent is the state mandating LEAs use evidence-based strategies in their improvement efforts? Does the state provide guidance and supports to LEAs to help them identify and implement the most effective strategies based upon their needs?
There is very little discussion of evidence in the materials available for review. The primary exception is that the grant application asks how district school improvement plans will incorporate one or more evidence-based strategies during implementation. In the materials reviewed, however, Texas does not indicate if – or how – they will support districts in selecting evidence-based strategies that meet their needs and are appropriate for their context. While it is possible that this support is available through the state’s regional Education Service Centers, the materials provided don’t say that explicitly; the only resource clearly offered is in the grant FAQs, which is a link to the USED page on evidence.
How well does the state articulate, delineate or set parameters around which interventions and responsibilities belong to the state, LEA and/or school? Does the state provide support or guidance to help LEAs identify and reduce barriers to school improvement? Does the state have a framework or process to support and monitor outside entities who partner with the state, LEAs or schools in school improvement efforts?
Texas is very clear that all school transformation grants must be administered in cooperation with a School Transformation Partner (STF), and specifies the percentage of the grant amount that should be reserved for that partner. By doing so, the state recognizes that struggling district cannot reliably improve on its own. Encouraging partnerships that are customized and make sense for the local context could be a promising practice worth emulating. In addition, the “Lone Star Governance” program is a unique and innovative approach that other states should consider as part of a broader school improvement effort.
What is less clear is how those partnerships are formed or how Texas will rigorously vet the school transformation partners. The application guidelines say that Texas will match districts to partners that it selected via a public Request for Qualifications (RFQ) and who demonstrate a strong track record of results, expertise designing and implementing the STF option, and who are a good fit to work with the grantee. However, the application itself calls on schools to describe how they’ll recruit, select, and evaluate any external partners.
It appears that most of the school improvement efforts will be shouldered by districts. It’s unclear what the state will be doing to build capacity and support district innovation through these efforts. While Texas does provide some resources for their districts, including templates and examples of how to implement certain models, it is unclear what the strategy is for enhancing the capacity of the district.
Does the state require LEAs to engage with stakeholders such as parents and community members in the development and implementation of their school improvement plans? Does the state provide sufficient guidance and resources to LEAs to effectively do so, helping them foster local buy-in and promote sustainability?
Engagement does not seem to feature prominently in Texas’ school improvement process. While districts are required to address how changes in the school will be communicated to stakeholders including parents, there does not appear to be a prompt to describe how stakeholders such as parents and educators were involved in the development of the improvement plan at the school and district levels.
In addition, Texas also indicates that districts will receive the time and support for community engagement. However, this is only true for some grant types. It is also unclear what form that support will take, if there is or will be any guidance as to which types of stakeholders (e.g. parents) to include, and how the state will determine the meaningful community engagement has occurred.
Does the state have a plan in place to review the school improvement efforts statewide and evaluate the impact and effectiveness? Does the state have a process in place to support LEAs and schools by enhancing their capacity to maintain their improvement efforts upon exiting identification and intervention?
To its credit, Texas is requiring districts and schools receiving the funds to participate in an overall evaluation of the program. Furthermore, the state has created a process for making continuation awards at the end of the life cycle for the implementation grants. As a part of its district application, Texas also asks its district to align the models to an overall theory of action. It is unclear from the materials provided if the state has a plan in place to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the school improvement efforts statewide. In addition, the grant materials do indicate that “upon completion of grant period, grantees may be eligible for continuation funding to support continued implementation,” but there is nothing about how extensive this funding might be, making it hard for schools and districts to plan.
The state’s plan sets student proficiency at the “approaches” grade-level standard, not “meets” or “masters” grade-level standard. It does a disservice to students and teachers to label a student as “proficient” when the student is not achieving at grade level, and could leave a significant portion of the state’s students unprepared for the future.
Texas’ long-term goals expect 90 percent of all students and all subgroups to reach the “approaches” level in English language arts and math and 94 percent of students to graduate high school on-time over the next 15 years.
Gap closure between subgroups is expected over the first five years of implementation, rather than over the entire 15-year goal-setting period. For example, students with disabilities (baseline 34.9 percent) and all students (baseline 71.9 percent) have the same interim target in reading for the year 2021-22.
For instance, white students currently have a graduation rate of 93.4 percent, but Texas sets their 2021-22 interim target at just 90 percent. Texas should provide a stronger rationale for how these targets are equally rigorous and attainable for all groups, given the dramatically different starting points.
The state’s goals to have the percentage of English learners making sufficient progress expected to increase 2 percentage points every five years. However, Texas’ plan could be improved by demonstrating how a two-point increase over this timeframe is sufficiently rigorous—particularly when achieving the long-term goal still means that fewer than half of English learners in the state (46 percent) would be making sufficient progress toward English language proficiency after 15 years.
Further, the plan does not appear to include a maximum timeline to attain proficiency for English learners. If a timeline exists, it should be added to the plan; if it does not exist, Texas should establish one to support continued academic progress for its significant English learner population.
Texas’ STAAR test was validated using existing student performance data.
This means that achieving the “masters” grade level means that students have a 75 percent chance of passing entry-level college courses (the same standard used by SAT and ACT), while the next highest level, “meets” grade level, indicates students have a 60 percent chance of passing them. However, Texas primarily focuses on student performance at the lower “approaches” level, as previously discussed (see “Goals” tab).
This can be a promising practice. However, the state does not describe what state assessments are available beyond Algebra I, leaving out how those students would continue to demonstrate progress over time. It is important for these details to be added to ensure Texas will provide for more rigorous instruction and assessments for these students in math and be able to document their progress in high school (e.g., an Algebra II assessment). This will enable students and families to know if they are prepared for postsecondary work and is a core requirement in the law.
This decision is especially important as many English learners speak Spanish. That said, Texas does not plan to develop similar tests for higher grade levels and could strengthen its plan by including a rationale for why there is no need for additional Spanish-language tests.
Texas should detail how it will ensure that the state does not exceed the 1 percent cap on participation in the alternate assessment for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
Texas should revise its plan to include historical data and additional descriptions and evidence of how its indicators support meaningful differentiation of schools.
In addition, the plan should describe how Texas will implement a uniform statewide accountability system, given its state law permitting districts and charters to add locally developed indicators to school ratings with state approval.
If local modifications are approved and could change a school’s overall grade, such an approach would undermine the validity, reliability, and comparability of the school grades across the state.
There also appear to be some measures used for school grades that are not described in the plan, such as those related to former students with disabilities. That said, it is clear the state will at least be measuring academic proficiency in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies and progress toward English language proficiency for English learners in all schools; both academic growth and academic achievement at the “meets” grade level standard in reading and math in elementary and middle schools; and graduation rates and college and career readiness in high schools.
Texas includes a second achievement measure of student performance at the higher “meets” grade level standard as a school-quality indicator, but the indicator may not receive a significant weight or offer much additional differentiation of schools. Texas would be better served by replacing its academic proficiency indicator entirely with this more rigorous measure.
A robust growth measure could also offset Texas’ low academic proficiency bar, but the growth measure used in Texas fails to incentivize student progress to levels above the “approaches” level.
These options include: meeting standards on Advanced Placement exams, earning dual course credits or industry certifications, admission to postsecondary programs that require successful high school performance as a prerequisite, earning an associate’s degree in high school, and military enlistment, to name a few.
Texas should monitor its data to ensure that all of these options are equally predictive of success and that certain groups of students are not disproportionately likely to pursue more or less rigorous pathways.
The state also includes four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, recognizing that some students may need additional time, but it is unclear how each is weighted. In finalizing its A-F methodology, Texas should place greater weight on its four-year rate relative to extended-year rates to emphasize on-time completion.
Texas deserves recognition for including all K–12 English learners in its indicator of progress in English language proficiency, which goes beyond ESSA’s requirements and includes more students in this critical measure.
The state also deserves credit for including science and social studies achievement within its academic indicator, which may help mitigate concerns of curriculum narrowing.
It is troubling that only one of these factors may ultimately matter in school grades. Texas is considering using only the better of the two domains, either Student Achievement or School Progress, in calculating each school’s grade. Although this approach could enable growth to play a significant role in school grades, it could also have the opposite effect, which would be a real disservice to students.
Texas measures proficiency as the percentage of students reaching the “approaches” standard, which sets a relatively low bar. Further, the plan appears to only incentivize growth for students at the lowest level. For students who are already proficient on the STAAR tests, the expectation is to just maintain an “approaches” score, and it is unclear how much growth is expected each year for students who are not yet at that level. In doing so, Texas misses an opportunity to encourage and reward growth. The state could strengthen its plan by providing a demonstration that its growth measure expects sustained progress for all students, not just those scoring a level 1 on state tests.
The state has set a high minimum group size for inclusion in accountability measures, and has a lack of consequences for nonparticipation in state tests, as well as a lack of clarity on how its “Closing the Gaps” domain is measured.
The state proposes to use a different minimum group size for the all-students group (10) than for individual subgroups (25). Texas explains that a group size of 10 will enable small schools to be included, as the state will combine three years of data in those cases to reach the group size, but does not offer a rationale for using a different policy for individual subgroups.
While the higher group size for subgroups should be reduced, Texas should be recognized for including data demonstrating the effects of this choice. Unfortunately, the data show that, at a group size of 25, fewer than half of schools will be held accountable for English learners and students with disabilities, fewer than 35 percent will be held accountable for black students, and only 56 percent will be held accountable for white students.
The state also has a different set of criteria to include English learners who are recent refugees and may exclude their results for five years; the state does not make clear why this is the case, what the state’s plan is for addressing these students’ learning needs, and how these criteria are determined to apply to individual students.
The state indicates its Closing the Gaps domain will be at least 30 percent of the grading formula, which could be a positive step to emphasize subgroup results, but includes no explanation of what measures are part of Closing the Gaps, how individual subgroups are considered, and whether the English-language proficiency indicator is included.
Texas’ criteria for identifying schools with consistently underperforming groups for targeted support are clear, as they are based on missing the state’s interim targets or goals for a number of years. However, the criteria to identify additional targeted support schools are not, because they are based on earning an F grade in the Closing the Gaps domain.
Further, Texas’ lack of consequences for schools that do not meet the 95 percent participation rate in annual testing is highly problematic and could undermine the school rating system.
While tracking the performance of students formerly identified in these subgroups is a promising practice, there are also pitfalls if they’re included in the same subgroup with students currently receiving language or disability services. In addition, unlike former English learners, former students with disabilities may not be included in the overall subgroup for accountability purposes. Since exiting students tend to have higher performance, the state should clarify the length of time they will be incorporated in the overall subgroup, if at all, and monitor its data to ensure their inclusion is not masking the performance of students who are still receiving services.
An A-F system can be user-friendly, helping ensure that stakeholders and schools have a clear understanding of how schools are serving all children. However, because the system is so new, many decisions to implement it have yet to be made.
Given these uncertainties, it is difficult to know how many schools Texas will identify and which measures will be used and emphasized. For instance, Texas has no data showing how an F grade relates to identification of schools among the bottom 5 percent.
For example, the Student Progress domain includes student growth, but also an unspecified metric comparing student achievement relative to schools with similar demographics. The Closing the Gaps domain includes subgroup performance data, but Texas doesn’t provide any detail about how it will be measured. It is similarly unclear where indicators measuring progress in English language proficiency and the percentage of students achieving at the “meets” grade-level standard fit in, and how all of the measures count, if at all, toward school grades.
Texas does not fully describe how multiple measures in a domain are aggregated, how it weights each domain to determine final grades, or the cut points that distinguish an overall A grade from a B or C. The plan indicates the Closing the Gaps domain will be worth at least 30 percent, and that final grades may include the better of Student Achievement or Student Progress.
Texas will identify three groups of schools each year for comprehensive support: the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools based on the overall A-F grades, any high school with a four-year graduation rate below 67 percent, and any school that remains in targeted support for three years in a row.
To identify targeted support schools, the fact that any one group falling behind on its interim targets for three years will lead to identification is positive. But the plan lacks details on which targets will be considered, as well as estimates of how many schools might be identified.
Finally, schools will be identified for additional targeted support on an annual basis if they receive an F in Closing the Gaps, but it’s unclear what level of performance would warrant an F rating and how this will identify schools where subgroups are performing similarly to those in the bottom 5 percent of schools.
Each comprehensive support school that hasn’t improved after two years will be required to develop a Campus Turnaround Plan and submit it to the state for approval. The plan must include data and root cause analysis, a whole-school reform model, and stakeholder engagement—all helpful steps that could be taken immediately, rather than after two years. It will also be important to ensure that stakeholder engagement on these plans is robust and allows an opportunity for meaningful participation.
If these schools have not improved after five years, schools face more rigorous, state-directed action, such as: closure; restarting the school in partnership with a charter; conversion to a charter with an independent governing board, new leadership, and redesigned model; appointment of a conservator for the school or district; or appointment of a board of managers to oversee the district instead of the local board.
The plan could be strengthened, however, by describing how the state will determine that initial interventions are evidence-based and address the challenges faced by schools.
The state will award funds to districts committed to interventions with strong evidence and that feature school-level operational flexibility, although its prioritized strategies focus more on the process for how change will happen than the specific interventions employed once that process is in motion.
Texas could strengthen its plan by describing how it will ensure there is an evidence base for all school interventions, including any existing evidence backing the strategies it plans to prioritize.
That said, Texas should clarify its plan to ensure that this would be coupled with actions to improve conditions within the school that has been identified in case students from the identified school do not enroll in the newly created one.
Texas could also indicate if and how it intends to provide direct student services using the optional 3 percent Title I set-aside, which could further support these efforts to improve identified schools.
The state has not fully defined the continuum of technical assistance it will provide to districts to support improvement, as most of its efforts to build district capacity have not yet been determined.
Still, many of Texas’ ideas are promising, including developing a resource library for improvement activities and vetting professional service providers and school improvement partners for effectiveness.
Texas’ Lone Star Governance training program for local school boards, an oft-overlooked area in school improvement activities, is a novel approach other states may want to consider.
The state is proposing to exit schools from comprehensive support status if the school improves its relative ranking and is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools for consecutive two years.
While looking for sustained gains is a strong approach, it is possible that a school could exit improvement simply by other schools getting worse and not the school itself improving. In addition, Texas does not provide exit criteria for other comprehensive support schools that are identified for different reasons, like low graduation rates or chronically low-performing subgroups.
While schools are expected to exit within three years, because the identification criteria for these schools are unclear, more detail is needed to fully evaluate the sufficiency of Texas’ approach and to determine if the criteria expect sustained improvement from schools with low-performing subgroups.
While there are a few references to stakeholder engagement, such as getting input on school turnaround plans, there are many other ways stakeholder input could be included. That said, Texas plans to conduct additional engagement in the coming months around key decision points in its A-F accountability system, and plans to submit a revised plan after final decisions have been made.
The state could more clearly describe the “multiple forums” it has used, and how it will ensure input from key, diverse constituencies as part of this process and on an ongoing basis, as it is not evident that consultation and engagement will continue once it resubmits its plan.
The supports include community partnerships, improvement and turnaround strategies, and instructional programs to create conditions for the continuous improvement of all schools. While many of its ideas are promising, at this stage they are only promises, with no firm decisions made on the direction of the work, key deliverables, or a multistep timeline for developing supports, receiving feedback, and improving them over time.