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Dan Liljenquist: Utah school grading program should spark dialog

Published: Thursday, June 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

For decades, public schools have issued student grades to help parents measure and benchmark the educational performance of their children. Report cards are, and will continue to be, an important yardstick of educational progress.

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A few months ago, one of my sons called me, at my wife's insistence, to read me the results of his mid-term report card. They were not good. He was self-conscious, ashamed and determined to do better. When I returned home from work, my wife and I sat down with our son to develop an action plan to bring up his grades. We then helped him track his progress the rest of the term. When we received our boy's final report card a couple of weeks ago, he had all A's with one A-. My son was elated, and I could not have been more pleased.

For decades, public schools have issued student grades to help parents measure and benchmark the educational performance of their children. Report cards are, and will continue to be, an important yardstick of educational progress. Measurement matters because what we choose to measure we can choose to improve.

On Sept. 1, 2013, parents will have a new report card to review — a report card for their public school. Thanks to the efforts of legislators, the State Office of Education and many others, Utah's public schools will begin receiving grades based on their performance. I applaud this new approach and believe it will lead to significant, positive changes in our public education system.

In 2011, Sen. Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, championed and ultimately passed the School Grading Act (SB59). This legislation replaced Utah's confusing and opaque U-PASS system with a simple and transparent School Grading framework. School Grading was further refined and improved in School Grading Amendments (SB271) passed earlier this year. While the system will undoubtedly require additional tweaks, it is an important beginning.

Under the new School Grading program, each public school will be assessed annually on the academic progress and proficiency of its students. Schools will receive grades — on an A to F scale — based on a combination of the percentage of students who are proficient at their grade level (as determined through end-of-year testing) and the percentage of students who demonstrated "sufficient growth" over the year. The Utah State Board of Education will continue to manage curriculum and assessment standards, and will also be responsible for setting "sufficient growth" standards to track student progress year by year.

The underlying principles of the school grading program, in the words of Neiderhauser, are "to provide objective measures of student learning that focus on outcomes instead of inputs and to balance student proficiency with actual learning gains." This is an appropriate refocusing of our education efforts. The ultimate goal of our public education system is to equip our children with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their adult lives. Grading schools will raise awareness of the gaps in our public education efforts and allow us to marshal the necessary resources to close those gaps.

Over the last three years, many educators have expressed their concern that school grading will unfairly place blame on teachers for the many familial and societal failures that plague us. I share their concern. In no way should school grading be seen as an indictment of our public school teachers. We have some of the best educators in the world working with our children, but they cannot educate our children on their own.

At its core, public education is a community-wide endeavor. School grading just might be the "call-to-action" we need in Utah to spark candid, collaborative conversations among parents, educators and community leaders about how to improve our results. Only then can we effectively deploy the necessary resources to meet our children's educational needs.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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