AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Nearly 94 percent of districts and around 84 percent of public schools in Texas met minimum education standards, officials announced Monday, in the final incarnation of an academic rating system that next year will be replaced with letter grades between A and F.
The Texas Education Agency has tweaked accountability ratings to ensure few failing "improvement required" ratings, meaning that 90-plus percent of districts and around 85 percent of schools have now met basic state requirements each of the last four years. That's despite Education Commissioner Mike Morath suggesting only about a third of high school graduates in the country's second most-populous state are actually ready to succeed in college or an immediate career or vocation.
"It's just like children's soccer nowadays, where everyone gets a trophy," Bill Hammond, a former state lawmaker who now heads the Texas Association of Business lobbying group, said of Monday's ratings. "It doesn't tell the public anything because there's no differentiation between the various schools."
Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison countered that those schools and districts flagged for failing to meet state standards have traditionally been concentrated in poor areas and have disproportionate numbers of minority students, or those who speak foreign languages at home and require extra instruction to learn English. He said the problem will only get worse when the state starts handing out "Fs."
"They call it differentiation. I call it stigma," Robison said.
Nearly 65 percent of Texas' 5.2 million public school children are black or Hispanic, and almost 60 percent of students statewide come from impoverished households.
The ratings use student performance on a statewide exam regimen known as STAAR that this year was plagued by computer problems.
Also Monday, the education agency announced that high school student performance on four of the five standardized STAAR tests needed to graduate improved or stayed the same last year when compared with the 2014-2015 academic year — even as passing standards got tougher. In 2013, Texas cut the number of such required exams from 15 to five amid widespread student and parent complaints about over-testing.
Biology exam passing rates slipped a percentage point to 91 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year, while Algebra I remained unchanged at 81 percent, as did English I at 63 percent and English II at 66 percent. Ninety-four percent of students taking the U.S. history exam passed last school year, up three percentage points from 2014-2015.
The accountability system also examines how well districts and schools close "achievement gaps" between minority and economically disadvantaged students and their white or wealthier counterparts, and youngsters' readiness for college or the workforce after high school.
The state rated more than 1,200 districts and 8,600-plus schools, including charter campuses. About 1,100 public school districts and charter operators met the standard this year, while 66 — or 5.5 percent — didn't.
Among elementary schools, 234 needed improvement compared with 118 middle schools and 67 high schools. There were 48 schools with kindergarten through 12th grade all on one campus that needed improvement.
The letter grades law sailed through Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature last year, with supporters saying it will be easier for parents and students to understand. Democrats and education advocates opposed the measure, and Robison said Monday that it was easier "to pass this A to F gimmick" than increase public education funding.
Florida implemented an A-F grade system in 1999, under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully ran for president this year. Fifteen states have since adopted similar ratings or are in the process of doing so.
Eds: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Texas education commissioner's last name.