Grades for Utah schools bring strong reaction from parents and educators

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3 2013 6:40 p.m. MDT

But because three below-proficient Viewmont students failed to take the criterion-referenced test, Viewmont received an automatic F grade compared to the other schools' B grades.

Viewmont Principal Dan Linford called the school grades a "sideshow." He said that because of how the grades are designed, his school would have been better off if those three students had simply logged on and missed every question on the test.

"I would love it if the state would let me just fail every kid that didn't take the test," he said. "The law is in place so that schools don't hide their low-achieving kids. We had 98 percent of our students take the test, we weren't trying to hide anybody."

At Davis High School, which received an A grade, Principal Dee Burton said he had mixed feelings about the new system. He said he was excited about his school's high marks but concerned about sister schools in the district that work just as hard, or harder, but were not recognized for their efforts.

He also said that because the grade is partly based on growth, high-performing schools could reach a point where they can't reasonably improve enough to maintain their grade.

"Part of the grade is based on progress," he said. "When you get to a certain point you can’t progress anymore and the only direction is down."

Dee said Davis High is facing that scenario already with its English proficiency scores. He said next year the school's grade could dip despite high student achievement.

"Absolutely," he said. "It worries me to death."

West High School

Another school hit by the mandatory 95 percent participation requirement was West High School in Salt Lake City. The school tested 92 percent of its eligible below-proficient population, which resulted in the school receiving an F instead of a D grade.

But West High School Principal Parley Jacobs said the automatic F is only one of the ways school grading fails to reflect a school's performance.

"We're not afraid of the numbers," he said. "The numbers, the way they've been designed, don't tell an accurate story."

Jacobs said West High School saw increased proficiency in almost all of its demographic subgroups. But because the growth in many areas did not reach the 40 percentile required by school grading – which evaluates a student's performance relative to a cohort of similar students – that growth did not contribute to the school's grade.

He said his staff will carefully look at the numbers and work toward increasing West's performance. But he said the grading system gives him little incentive to strive for an A grade. He said the methodology behind the grades makes it almost impossible for a large, urban school with a highly diverse student body to achieve top marks.

"The way this is designed, West High School will never get an A," Jacobs said.

Elementary school

Jessica Dunn, a Utah parent who previously taught third grade at Adelaide Elementary for 12 years, said the grades not only fail to address the increases made by at-risk students but also demoralize the efforts of educators.

"The school that I just came from in Davis County got a C," she said. "Our students are making leaps and bounds. Their growth isn't being reflected and the teaching efforts are, once again, being stomped upon."

Judi Clark, executive director of Parents For Choice in Education, said she sees the conversation already generated by the new grades as a point in favor of the new system. Her organization advocated for school grading and collaborated with lawmakers in drafting the bill that made school grading law, and Clark said while some tweaks may be needed, the grades' overall goal is being accomplished.

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