New Utah school grading system raises concerns
by Laura Haley
Contributing Writer
Sep 05, 2013 | 2131 views | 0 0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As of Sept. 1, parents not only have to worry about the grades on their student’s report card, but the grade that the state has assigned the schools as well. A new grading system, mandated by a new state law now assigns all Utah schools a letter grade, A to F, based largely on the school’s student test scores.

The Utah Legislature narrowly passed SB271 S3 earlier this year and lawmakers who backed the bill insist that it is a move toward transparency. Educators statewide, however, have decried the legislation, saying that the new school grading system cannot give an accurate picture of a school’s actual performance.

The new grades, released Tuesday, Sept. 3, give Helen M. Knight Elementary School, Moab Charter School and Grand County Middle School all B grades, while Grand County High School received a C.

According to the Utah Board of Education, the grades are based on Criterion-Referenced Tests. Those tests, administered near the end of the school year to students in grades three through 12, look at both proficiency and growth in the areas of math, language arts and science to determine the school’s grade, according to the state education board.

However, Patti Harrington, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said there has not been any research that actually ties the new system with school improvement.

“It remains much more of a political ideology than a research-based practice,” she said in a news release this week.

Harrington said the school scoring system was touted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“At the time of Florida’s school grading implementation, Utah outperformed Florida in almost every indicator,” Harrington said. “Utah still outperforms Florida in many indicators.”

HMK Principal Taryn Kay said the grades don’t mean much on their own and the schools have not yet been provided with the detailed data used to establish the letter grade.

“We really won’t know anything until the state releases the test results on Sept. 30,” she said.

Grand County School Superintendent Scott Crane said he doesn’t feel that the new grading system is useful to the district.

“My belief is that testing should inform instruction,” he said. “It should help determine areas that we need to work on and improve.”

Instead, he said, by being assigned a single letter grade, there is no indication of where the school may be lagging behind.

“It doesn’t really give me any information,” he said, adding that he prefers the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS), which was implemented in 2011.

Grand County Board of Education president Jim Webster said the new system looks solely at a school’s test scores and the progress that students make over the course of a year. “This broad brush stroke look at a school with one letter grade doesn’t take all the factors into consideration,” he said. “It’s simplistic and not a fair representation of what a school might have to offer.”

Webster said one of the problems with the new system is the fact that schools are graded on a bell curve, meaning a small number of schools will be assigned A’s and F’s, while the rest fall somewhere in the middle. “If you fall on the wrong side of that curve, it could reflect even more poorly than the test scores indicated,” he said.

Webster said that schools along the Wasatch Front will probably see the biggest fallout as a result of the new system, as parents will be able to view a school’s grade and choose to send their child to a different school as a result.

Webster said the new system will likely end up favoring larger school districts that have a stable financial base.

“If you have more students in needs without the financial stability of a bigger district ... it may have a bearing on that grade,” he said.

Harrington echoed that sentiment.

“The School Grading Program appears to be roughly aligned with economic factors in a community, giving higher grades to school located in wealthy areas and lower grades to school located in areas of high poverty,” she said.

Webster said that while Grand’s schools fared relatively well, he was unhappy with the fact that GCHS was given a C.

“The high school is not a ‘C’ high school,” he said. “There’s a lot going on there.”

Webster said that while C is an average grade, he feels that the grades don’t reflect the diversity that school districts can experience.

Joe Heywood, director of Moab Charter School, said he doesn’t think the new system will affect the charter school unless the legislature decides to tie funding to a school’s letter grade further down the road. However, he does not support the new system.

“I feel bad for all the little kids in the schools that get D’s and F’s,” Heywood said. “You’re telling all those kids that they’re F students, but they have no control over it.”

Failing grades for individual schools can be assigned due to low test scores. However, they can also be assigned if the school doesn’t have at least 95 percent participation in year-end testing.

“It’s just ugly the way they’re doing it,” Heywood said. “I strongly disagree with state legislators publicly shaming little kids like that.”

Crane, Webster and Heywood all agreed there isn’t much that can be done at this point, aside from taking a wait-and-see approach. Heywood said if the state does choose to tie a school’s funding to its letter grade in the future, he expects to see more serious backlash against the new system.

Editor's note: This version corrects the name of the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System.

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