Higher education, demographics among proposed changes to school grading system

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 4:25 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Gary Herbert's education adviser could see Utah's controversial school grading system swapped for a report card that accounts for demographics and college-level coursework.

The report cards, as presented by Tami Pyfer during this week's meeting of the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, would also expand to include higher education, charting the progress of Utah's colleges and universities toward the state goal of two-thirds of adults holding a degree or certificate by 2020.

"I think it’s an opportune moment to have a new reporting system because we have a new assessment system," Pyfer said, referring to the SAGE tests being used for the first time in schools this year. "We want to measure progress toward 66 by 2020, and we want to provide parents and community members with accurate, clear information about how our public schools are doing, how our colleges of applied technology are doing and how our universities are doing."

Since the release of Utah's first school grades last September, opponents have worried that using test scores and graduation rates to generate a single letter grade paints too narrow a picture of school performance.

The school grading law has gone through several revisions and is one of two school accountability systems currently in use in the state — the other being the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System operated by the State Office of Education.

Pyfer said her proposal stemmed from conversations she has had with the governor, who expressed interest in looking for ways to measure progress toward state goals while also providing clear and user-friendly information on school performance to parents and students.

"We want something that doesn’t have to go through a couple layers of interpretation for someone to understand it," she said. "We are trying to find the happy medium between not enough information and too much information."

Under Pyfer's proposal, report cards for elementary and secondary schools would continue to report the graduation rate and performance on year-end tests. But the reports would also include information on schools' demographic breakdown, kindergarten readiness and the number of students participating in concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses.

"It's not an excuse," she said of the additional information. "It's context, and it's prescriptive."

Report cards for higher education would include metrics such as retention and completion rates, enrollment, and the number of degrees or certificates awarded each year.

David Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said the proposal is in its early stages but appears to deal with data that are already available to the public. Buhler said he and his staff have been working toward making performance data more accessible, and Pyfer's proposal is in line with that goal.

"We look forward to working with them and doing something that’s meaningful to the public," he said.

Buhler said the Utah System of Higher Education regularly updates its data book, a collection of "several hundred pages" of tables and graphs related to Utah's colleges and universities. He said students can always find more information, but there's also a benefit to providing families with a school snapshot while making enrollment decisions.

"I think it could be a value to students and parents and to other stakeholders," Buhler said.

State law requires the issuance of school grades this fall, and the State Office of Education will similarly release data from its accountability system later this year to comply with federal requirements.

Pyfer, who previously served as chairwoman of the State School Board, said she has been in talks with educators and lawmakers about potentially incorporating elements of the report card into existing accountability reports.

"The governor wants the same thing that the Legislature wants, and I belive it’s the same thing, really, that educators want," she said. "We want to communicate this information to parents in a clear, simple fashion."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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