Rising graduation rates among public high school students — both nationally and here in Utah — is encouraging news. This shows that positive results can follow policies that focus specific attention on the performance of individual schools.
The use of letter grades as an evaluation metric has its naysayers. Some have questioned the fairness and thoroughness of using a single letter as a grade. Whether or not a letter grade is appended to a school ranking system, methods of holding individual schools accountable for their performance — through quantitative measures — do indeed result in better performance.
Proof of that cause-and-effect relationship exists in the latest report on graduation rates from the U.S. Department of Education, which shows an average graduation rate across the nation of 80 percent, and 81 percent in Utah. The report attributes increased graduation rates among underperforming schools across the country to the efforts of community and district levels to focus on the performance of those schools and the student populations they serve.
Such efforts have also been underway in Utah. Letter grades for each public high school are part of that system of accountability. Critics complain that the system punishes certain schools by failing to take into consideration demographic data that might explain why some institutions fare better than others.
A new proposal announced last week by Gov. Gary Herbert’s education adviser would alleviate much of that concern by adding more data to the evaluation process, including information on the school’s demographic breakdown as well as the number of college-level courses offered and the number of students in Advanced Placement courses.
The state compiles mountains of data on school performance and has two current measurement programs: the letter grading system enacted two years ago by the Utah Legislature, and the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, also administered by the State Office of Education.
The pool of data used in the evaluation processes is public record. At the same time, it can be hard to access and difficult to interpret. There remains some value in retaining a letter grade, so long as it is viewed for what it is. It should not be seen as the final word on a school’s performance. Letter grades are, instead, a guidepost providing a snapshot of a school’s relative status at a given time.
School districts throughout the country have found value in holding individual schools accountable for their success. The use of letter grades in Utah is just one part of the accountability process. Even so, it is important that such grading systems are as thorough and relevant as possible, which is why the changes proposed through the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission are a move in the right direction.