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.
Those schools that move up a grade letter or who maintain an A rating, receive $75 per student to be used either as a bonus for teachers, more equipment or for additional staff. Most schools, Copa said, use this money for teacher bonuses.
But some educators in Utah feel there is already too much focus on testing and to introduce "high stakes testing" would be moving in the wrong direction. They also are hoping if a grading system is established it would be different than the one imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Benjamin Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said grades often don't tell the whole story. He said some students who get poor grades do very well on their college prep tests. With some schools because of the demographics, a letter grad would be like comparing apples and oranges, said Glendale Principal John Erlacher.
Rhonda Bromley, spokeswoman for the Alpine School District, said she hopes if such a grading is implemented that it would be comprehensive and adequately represent what is happening at schools.
But many question whether Utah has established a good enough test that would allow it to adequately measure schools. Withers, the Salt Lake superintendent, is also afraid that those who received high marks would not try to do better the next year.
"Trying to find ways to create shock or complacency are just not helpful at all," he said.
Parents at Edgemont Elementary in Provo are mixed about the possibility of seeing their school get a letter grade.
Shenole Palmer, mother of seven, who has a third-grader at Edgemont, said she is all for it.
"Schools need to feel like there is competition and they need to step up," Palmer said.
But Eleonar McBride, who also has a daughter at the school and has volunteered off and on for the last seven years there, said "the elementary school environment is too complex to put a simple grade on."
The State Board of Education will resume discussion of report cards for schools in their next meeting in January.