But Niederhauser said he doesn't necessarily think that focus should come at the expense of other academic programs. He said there's a consensus that electives like art and music create a learning environment that helps many students excel in core subjects.
"I think we want to cautiously go down that road and just make sure that we’re not de-incentivizing things that are actually helping in a broad way," he said.
Niederhauser, who sponsored the original school grading bill, said the grades provide clarity on how students at a particular school are performing. He said the task now is to study the grades and determine how they can be improved.
During last month's meeting of the Education Task Force, principals of high-scoring schools with large at-risk populations were invited to present on how they had bucked the trend of demographics. Many of the schools were recipients of federal Title 1 funding, and Niederhauser said lawmakers learned that targeted investments can have a substantial impact at the local level.
He said it was possible that in the future additional school improvement funding from the state could be tied to the accountability scores to assist struggling schools.
"With some targeted money, they can make some huge changes that really make the dial move," Niederhauser said.
LeAnn Wood said she has seen firsthand the potential for good the scores carry. When the first Utah Comprehensive Accountability System data were released last year, Wood was serving on the community council of West Jordan's Columbia Elementary School, which received disappointingly low scores.
"They were all so engaged in this discussion of what they could do better," she said of the staff at Columbia.
But Wood expressed frustration that the Legislature created school grading before the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System was given a chance to succeed. She also said that school grades don't show improvement to the same degree as the accountability system.
"Even an improvement of five points is an improvement," Wood said. "That five points wouldn’t make a difference on a B grade. It’s still a B."
Statewide, the latest accountability data show that schools improved from 2012 to 2013. The median score for elementary and junior high schools increased from 428 to 434 points, and the median score for high schools jumped nine points from 408 to 417.
Assuming the same percentage breakdown of school grading, those increases would mean the median accountability score remained a B at the elementary and junior high levels and a C at the high school level.
"I don’t think it's as helpful as the legislators wanted it to be," Wood said of school grades. "I’m not sure what they wanted us to really get out of it."
Wood said her hope as a parent is that schools drill down and identify exactly why they got the score and grade they did. If that leads to specific students and student populations being identified as underserved, then the systems will have succeeded.
Slye said she'd prefer a school grade that accounted for incremental growth, similar to the way the accountability system is scored. As a teacher, especially in her position working with special education students, success is often the product of small steps over time rather than large leaps, she said.
"Any progress whatsoever, any improvement whatsoever, should be counted toward your school because that’s what teachers come to work every day to do, to help your kids make progress," Slye said.
Lawmakers and educators have acknowledged that the methodology behind both accountability systems may require tweaks in the future. One particular element that has created tension is the requirement that schools test 95 percent of their students or face an automatic F grade and zero score.
Stepping back from the specific methodologies or the comparisons between the two systems, Slye said it is worthwhile to parents and educators to have access to a public evaluation of a school's performance.
"There is value there, depending on how it is carried out," she said. "It helps us as a school to see where we have weaknesses and where we need to make those improvements."
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