Legislatures, Board of Education contemplating grading schools

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 10:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — McKell Withers believes schools should be transparent and accountable. The Salt Lake City superintendent has no qualms about that.

But he is worried about the ramifications and reasons behind giving individual schools in Utah a letter grade.

"Schools are graded all the time by lots of people in different ways," Withers said. "But when you want to try and simplify a very complex organization to a single letter grade, like some legislatures have been talking about, it seems unreliable."

Federally each school is required to have some sort of report card, but only a handful of states or districts in the nation actually give a letter grade to schools, including districts in Florida, Hawaii and New York City. Utah is considering adding the measurement as well.

The Utah State Board of Education discussed the idea of giving schools more comprehensive report cards in its meeting this month, including the possibility of giving out a letter grade. It has drafted a proposal that would give schools a letter grade on academic performance in language arts, math and science and on academic progress, subgroup achievement and parent satisfaction. Other items on the report card would include school attendance, school safety and demographics. High schools would have a section on graduation rates and ACT participation. Elementary schools would have a section on the percentage of students reading on grade level by the 4th grade.

And, if approved by the board, the grading system for schools would begin next school year; schools would need to turn in their numbers by November. Instructional quality at schools would start to get an A-F rating in 2014.

"It is very exploratory right now," said Judy Park, the school board's associate superintendent for Student Services and Federal Programs. "They are exploring it to see if this is something that would be beneficial and helpful to schools."

But legislators have already been making plans regarding grading schools since July and say whether or not the board decides to approve the proposal, they are going forward with a bill.

Currently Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (R-Salt Lake), the majority whip, is drafting a bill that would grade schools based on state testing and on academic progress.

"We are going to look at student achievement because that is the bottom line for schools," Niederhauser said. "When performance is measured, performance improves and the rate of achievement accelerates."

The point, he said: transparency and accountability.

Niederhauser said the idea came from a system that has been working for the state of Florida for more than a decade. Before implementing the grading system for schools, the Florida schools had been testing far below Utah and the rest of the country. Now, it consistently scores among the top schools in the nation.

And Juan Copa, Florida's Department of Education's bureau chief for research and evaluation, said grading schools has been a major factor in the state's success.

"Everyone can understand what a grade letter means, so that helps folks focus on and move toward improvement," Copa said. "The grade serves as a wake-up call to some communities."

He said communities, teachers and parents have rallied around the schools with low grades and most of the schools in the state now have an A or a B rating.

The grades are based on how well students do on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which tests students mainly in grades 3-10 in math, science, reading and writing. Since 2002, the grades now also take into consideration school progression. And this year, high schools' grading will take into consideration graduation rates, performance in advanced placement classes and scores on the ACT and SAT.

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