Lawmakers pay visit to schools failing under new grading system
Matt Gade, Deseret News
KEARNS — Five Utah legislators toured two high schools Monday that received low marks from the new school grading system, giving the state lawmakers an opportunity to see the challenges each school faces.
“It wasn’t just about the grades today,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. “I wanted them to see the beautiful Granger High School. I wanted them to see the diversity. It’s a different path we have to travel to make sure that everybody can communicate and be educated.”
Mayne organized the outings to both Granger and Kearns high schools, which received D and F grades, respectively, under the new grading system created this year by legislators. The system assigns each public school in the state a letter grade of A, B, C, D or F.
Mayne invited Sens. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, to tour the schools. They were joined by Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates and Assistant Superintendent Mike Fraser, as well as Utah Education Association representative Kory Holdaway.
Mayne said what she saw Monday were schools effectively moving forward.
"One is a Title I school; one has a grade of an F," she said. "What they’re doing is they’re moving, they’re evolving, they’re changing, and this is what I was glad to see.”
Kearns High Principal Maile Loo said the school is doing the best job it can to make incremental gains.
"I'm hopeful that together with (state legislators') ideas and the legislative bills that they pass and the district that we can continue to be successful," Loo said.
Kearns received an F grade because its math scores were too low, she said.
"I was really pleased with most of the data that came through," Loo said. "The one area that really caused some heartburn was our performance in math. But as a district, we are low throughout all the schools in math anyway."
Loo said she hopes to bring up math scores and bring Kearns High out of the "red zone" by next year by providing professional development for teachers, more department collaboration and district coaches.
"Obviously there's always room for improvement, no matter what area we work in," she said. "And if we're all striving to improve and do our jobs a little bit better, the end results should be positive."
Granger High Principal Jerry Haslam said he does not think the grading system accurately depicts his school's performance. The D grade, he said, “is what it is.”
“That’s where our testing came back, but I’m very proud of our school and our growth from where we started four years ago,” Haslam said.
When taking a broader look at Granger's Utah Comprehensive Accountability System score, the school's social economics, the number of free or reduced lunches, and diversity, Haslam said the school is performing very well.
“We’re not where we want to be or need to be, but we’re getting there,” he said.
A letter grade for a school with high poverty and diversity that has improved from some of the lowest graduation and testing scores in the state “isn’t a total picture of what that school’s about,” Haslam said.
He said he wants something that takes a “broader picture of what a school does with kids, and somehow makes sure it’s apples to apples when you compare schools and what schools are doing for children and growth of children.”
Haslam said he believes the state legislators left Granger with a better knowledge of where the school truly stands.
“Instead of seeing a school with a D grade, they saw a school that’s on the move. It’s increasing as measured,” he said.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sponsored HB271, passed during the 2013 Legislature, to create a new method of tracking schools' success. According to Adams, giving educators and parents a transparent look at where schools stand will bring about change.
“My guess is those two schools, because of the focus they’re getting, they won't stay there,” he said. “That is the most exciting thing I’ve heard."
Adams said he foresees two changes to the bill in the upcoming legislative session. One is to change the grading system so every school can potentially get an A. The second change would drop schools a letter grade rather than automatically failing a school for having less than 95 percent of the below-proficient students take the criterion-referenced tests.
“I don’t believe we have an F school in the state of Utah. I don’t believe we have a D school in the state of Utah,” Adams said. “I think we have the potential for every school being As and Bs."
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