Grading school grades: Parents speak out on accountability scores

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 8:13 a.m. MDT

Schools were hit with with both school grades and school performance scores in September. But what do the scores actually mean, and what can be done to change them?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Public schools in Utah were hit last month with competing reports on school performance.

In one corner is the school grading system, created this year by legislators with little input from the education community. The system assigns each public school in the state a letter grade of A, B, C, D or F.

In the other corner is the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, designed by the State Office of Education in response to a legislative mandate, which awards schools a point total that can be compared with median scores across the state and historical performance.

Both systems labeled many schools as failing or underperforming. But for parents whose students attend those schools, it may not be clear what the scores actually mean and what educators can or should do to improve them.

"We get a grade and then what do you do with it?" said Janna Slye, a special education teacher at Sierra Bonita Elementary School in Spanish Fork. "We don’t know because there isn’t anything in place to help us."

What do the scores mean?

Both school grading and accountability are based on high school graduation rates and student performance on Criterion Referenced Tests, the annual assessment students take at the end of a school year.

If a school received a low grade or accountability score, it is because too few students tested proficiently, too few students improved their proficiency compared with the previous year, too few students graduated, or a combination of all three.

The grades and scores do not reflect the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement or concurrent enrollment courses. They do not give points for extra-curricular or International Baccalaureate programs. They do not award administrators for maintaining small class sizes or efficient budgets.

And they are not attached to funding. That means schools stamped with a failing grade receive no additional resources to address the challenges that contribute to those scores.

Sierra Bonita Elementary received an A grade and an accountability score of 495 out of 600, well ahead of the state's median score of 434. But Slye said the scores are frustrating because the requirement for constant student improvement makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a high-scoring school to maintain its grade.

While the school where Slye teaches received an A grade, the junior high her children attend received a C.

"As a parent, I can see where that grade may have some significance," she said, "but as a teacher, I look at it and think it really doesn’t have as much significance as parents might think it does. I don’t think teachers are putting a lot of stock into it because they know how flawed that system is."

The question of the scores' significance was also raised by Jennifer Goodrich, a parent and member of the community council for the Con Amore School in Myton, Duchesne County.

"Personally, I know the teachers are doing everything they can to help these students, so the grade really doesn’t concern me," Goodrich said.

Part of the Duchesne County School District, Con Amore School is specifically designed for students with special needs and has an enrollment of 61. Because of its low enrollment, Con Amore was not issued a letter grade, but its scores would warrant an F under the school grading methodology. It was also one of the lower-scoring schools under the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System.

Those scores are consistent with many of the state's alternative schools, which in large part received low marks under both accountability systems.

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