My view: Why Utah's schools need grading

By Wayne Niederhauser and Becky Lockhart

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

This week, every public school in Utah received a letter grade based on student academic progress.

This new Utah policy was patterned after Florida's system, which has helped propel student achievement gains there and in several other states. The legislature set up the mandate, framework and transparency but the grades are based on standards set by the elected members of the State Board of Education.

Elementary schools and junior high schools will receive a letter grade based on the answer to the following questions:

1) Are students performing at grade level? and

2) Are students achieving adequate academic growth each year?

The first question is the traditional yardstick for measuring school performance. We added the second question to encourage attention to each student, even those that are far below or far above grade level. Credit for the yearly progress of nonproficient students is double-weighted, but they must achieve at least a full year's worth of learning in the school year. Less than that means the student has fallen even further behind.

High school grades will factor in an additional measurement:

3) How well are students prepared for college (and life) after high school? We'll measure this by graduation rates and ACT scores.

We believe a straightforward grade, based on transparent criteria, with good supporting information is an improvement on performance ranking systems used in the past that were confusing and cumbersome for the average parent or community leader.

A school's letter grade is not a final judgment. It's just an introduction and an invitation to engage. It won't tell you everything just as your child's grade may not reflect the totality of his or her experience in the classroom. It does, however, shine a necessary bright light in key areas.

Some of the grades this year may surprise you. If that happens, the essential question to ask is, "Why did the school receive this grade?" As you dig deeper, the answers will be illuminating.

Utah's grading system will shine a light on things that are too often swept under the rug. As a hypothetical example, your favorite school may have fantastic, high-profile programs for which they've received public accolades. However, if our Hispanic students at that institution are dropping out at a disproportionately high rate, it hasn't earned an A, and will not until that situation improves.

We hope that school grading will invite discussion, education, intervention, and improvement.

We've already seen misinformation and fear tactics used against Utah's school grading policy. There are good people among us who will always be uncomfortable with transparency or reform. As legislators, we understand how a public spotlight can sometimes be uncomfortable, but we also understand the necessity and benefit of that light. The policy recommendations of those who want to keep the inner workings of public education inaccessible to citizens will not carry the day.

We have also spoken with several individuals who see ways to make School Grading more accurate and more robust. As these ideas continue to come in we'll work with school board members to sand down a rough edge or two and make our system stronger.

School grading is a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system that focuses on outcomes instead of inputs.

We believe such a system is necessary for teachers and administrators to focus their efforts, for parents to understand what's happening at their children's schools, and for board members and lawmakers to allocate resources effectively.

When a neighborhood school's grade is less than stellar we hope it will compel all of us to help the school improve.

In all of our work to build better communities, improving the education system may be the most important thing we can do. This new system offers the accountability and clarity to guide us in this effort.

You can find more information at www.utahschoolgrading.com.

Wayne Niederhauser is president of the Utah Senate, and Becky Lockhart is speaker of the House of Representatives.

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