Letter grades are coming

HARLINGEN – The Harlingen school district has received a B.

But does that tell the whole story of a district?

Not even close, says Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer for the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District.

For the first time, Texas Education Agency will give school districts a letter grade, the best being an A and the poorest being an F, just like on student report cards. The results will be released today.

The grades are based on accountability ratings being released today by TEA, and those ratings in turn are based on result of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. And therein lies the problem. The accountability system itself focuses strictly on academics. However, school districts, like people, are much more layered than strictly numbers.

“We still believe the accountability system falls short of painting the true picture of a district,” Noyola said. “In school districts across the entire state, we also focus on educating the whole child. We also know that the academic side alone doesn’t equate to success in all students.”

For example, STAAR says nothing about the district’s literacy initiatives such as ReadyRosie, the Neuhaus phonics system, and this year the “Leveled Literacy Libraries.” It says nothing about the district’s Strategic Plan and it’s focus on the 4cs: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. And certainly all the other endeavors of districts across Texas to educate the whole child.

Noyola pointed out however that the accountability ratings do address some crucial needs.

“We understand there’s a need for accountability in any industry,” she said. “Accountability does give you information for continuous improvement. It guides you in terms of where are those areas we still need to address. But when it’s all dependent on numbers it doesn’t really take into account the unique talents and interests of our students.”

She pointed out the Fine Arts Academy which just opened at Lee Means Elementary School. That academy is giving students exposure to music, dance, visual arts and theater.

“We had such a strong demand and we have a waiting list of students and parents wanting to be part of the Fine Arts Academy because that’s an area of interest,” she said. “However, when that campus is evaluated at the end of the year all they’re going to measure is the academic portion of that school.”

The ratings won’t reveal all the other experiences at the school, such as student interest and motivation or their artistic activities. Nor will it reflect the district’s efforts at bilingual education.

“In Harlingen we offer dual language academies,” she said. “We understand how essential it is for all our students to be bilingual and biliterate and achieve the maximum success that they have. That’s not something that’s measured through the accountability system.”

While the letter grade system may appear the same as the grading system for students, there’s a difference. Teachers have the ability to work with individual students who are struggling. They can offer tutoring and allow them to retest, as well as take into account specific challenges of each child. In the classroom, a student is more than a number.