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Grades for Utah schools expected to stir controversy

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 12:40 p.m. MDT

The State Office of Education will release the first school grades next Tuesday under a state law that evaluates schools based on proficiency, participation and progress.

Nick Geranios, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public schools will receive their first report cards next week under a new school grading law and both lawmakers and educators are bracing for the anticipated backlash.

On Tuesday each school in the state will receive an overall letter grade based on proficiency in language arts, mathematics and science as well as the growth students demonstrate year over year on end-of-level testing. For high schools, the grades will also reflect graduation rates and, beginning next year, student performance on the ACT exam.

But the changes also require that 95 percent of students participate in end-of-level testing. Failing to do so results in an automatic F grade and Utah State Office of Education officials said Tuesday several schools fall into that category.

Associate State Superintendent Judy Park, who along with other officials met with members of the media Tuesday to discuss the school grading process, lauded school grading as an accountability system for schools. But she said there are several metrics that illustrate a school's success or failure that cannot easily be simplified into a single A or F letter grade.

"There’s a lot of data points that are meaningful glimpses into the success of our schools," Park said. "(School grading) is one methodology for looking at schools and certainly there are a lot more."

School grading was originally proposed by now-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, in 2011 as a method of providing clear performance data to parents and students and as a replacement to Utah's U-PASS system, which rated schools as either achieving or not achieving a series of performance benchmarks.

Data from U-PASS were released consecutively with the much-maligned pass/fail adequate yearly progress reports of No Child Left Behind, resulting in two distinct state and federal accountability systems that presented conflicting views on the performance of Utah's schools.

Last year, Utah received a waiver from No Child Left Behind when the U.S. Department of Education approved the state's use of the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS, which had been developed by the State Office of Education. That system will continue under the term's of Utah's No Child Left Behind waiver in addition to Utah's use of school grading, but Niederhauser said Tuesday that he expects the state to return to using a single accountability system in the future.

"I don’t think we’ll have two systems for long," he said. "We already know there’s some slight modifications that need to be made."

One of those changes, he said, is the requirement that 95 percent of students participate in end-of-level testing. Niederhauser called the mandated F grade for those failing to do so a "draconian" measure.

While the individual school reports are not yet available, Niederhauser said there are six Utah high schools that fell below the 95 percent threshold and were penalized with an F grade, including one school that would otherwise have scored an A or B.

"That’s the one I’m concerned about because now they automatically get an F," he said. "I’ve had a discussion with the principal and he’s very upset."

Niederhauser said he would prefer to see the law changed so that a school's grade is lowered by a single letter if less than 95 percent of students take the test. But he added that the principal of the school in question, which he would not disclose ahead of next week's reports, assured him that his school would achieve 95 percent next year, which is precisely the goal of the school grading law.

"That is the reason why we’re bringing the light and transparency to these things," Niederhauser said. "You’re going to have at least three more students in that school that won’t fall through the cracks and take the test."

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