SALT LAKE CITY — New school grades were released Monday and with it a fresh round of criticism for a process that changes each year, leaving educators and parents searching for what it all means.
Of Utah's 737 elementary and middle schools, 13 percent received an A grade, 45 percent received a B, 31 percent received a C, 8 percent received a D, and 2 percent received an F.
Utah's top five performing elementary schools include Cherry Hill, Ensign School, Beacon Heights School, Granite School and Highland School.
For the 129 high schools in the state, 5 percent received an A, 45 percent received a B, 30 percent received a C, 11 percent received a D, and 9 percent received an F.
Six high schools in the state earned an A, including Davis High, Viewmont High, InTech Collegiate High School, the Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science, Success Academy, and the Utah County Academy of Science.
New metrics, this time from the SAGE test, were used in the calculation of the grades but the overall grade distribution was the same as last year's grade release. That means to get roughly the same number of schools in each grade, state education officials lowered acceptable percentages by as much as 21 percent.
To earn an A grade, elementary and middle schools must now earn between 64 and 100 percent, 51-63 percent for a B, 39-50 percent for a C, 30-49 percent for a D, and 29 percent or less for an F.
One change to this year's grading system welcomed by educators is based on the portion of students taking year-end assessments. Previously, schools that failed to assess at least 95 percent of their students received an automatic F. Now, those same schools would only receive a drop by one letter grade.
Following critique from parents, teachers and state lawmakers, state education officials made revisions to the school grading system each year since the first set of grades were released in 2011.
"School grading has been different every single year," said Judy Park, associate superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education. "I would imagine that this legislative session, we'll see some more changes."
Results for the governor's PACE report card were also released Monday, giving parents and educators a sense of Utah's progress toward academic proficiency goals for the year 2020.
Each school's grade is determined by a point system that measures overall academic growth, proficiency in math, English and science. High school grades also include graduation rates and ACT scores.
This is the first year that school grades are based on SAGE, the state's new annual assessment system that raised the bar for performance in math, English and science. The test was administered for the first time in the spring.
To account for the new assessment, state education officials adjusted the grading distribution to mirror results from 2013, the last year the state administered the annual criterion-reference test.
Alternative schools are now exempt from school grading, and new schools can apply for a temporary exemption. Children whose parents opted them out of SAGE testing are not included in this year's grade calculation.
ACT scores were also added to 2014's calculation for high school grades.
Park said that "up to 17" schools could be affected by an error in how mentally impaired students were included in the grading calculation. Those students take the Utah alternative assessment in place of SAGE, but some were not counted as having taken an assessment. This could potentially drop some schools below the 95 percent assessment participation rule, dropping their grade by one letter.
"We'll be looking over that data. We still have a lot of work to do on it," Park said. "If any schools have been negatively impacted by that, then we will be redoing their reports."
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said more than 750 students in the district take the alternative assessment and were not included in the count, affecting "many or all" of the district's 73 schools. He expressed concern that the error could reverberate throughout the state because of how grades were determined to match 2013's distribution.
"Because there's a forced distribution on all schools across the state, if even one of Granite's grades is off, that could potentially send a shockwave and alter other schools' grades," he said.
Horsley, however, remained positive about the school grade system as a teaching tool, that it provides a baseline for accountability and useful data at the classroom level.
"The data is actually pretty critical," he said.
Liz Zentner, president of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, argues the school grades cast an overly broad visualization of each school, which can be especially harmful to schools that get low grades.
"The grades just aren't fair. One grade just isn't fair. It doesn't tell the whole story of all the great things that are going on in schools," Zentner said. "I don't pay any attention to these school grades. I don't think they're valid."
Zentner, however, expressed praise for the PACE report card, which she says "tells a much bigger story." She said a portion of the report, called a school snapshot, gives schools an opportunity to tell what's unique about the institution.
"I would definitely look at those things: What does our school do that sets us apart from others?" she said.
State education officials agree that there's more to consider about a school than whatever grade it receives. But the grades may help facilitate discussion between parents and teachers.
"I think it's important for parents (and) I think it's important for the public to understand there's lots of indicators about the quality in a school. The grade is one indicator," Park said. "But I would hope that parents and the public look at all of the good things happening in their school, and not just make decisions or judgements based on one factor."
Horsley said parents should ask teachers how the school grade ties to their student's individual academic performance.
"When parents look at this information, I hope that they go back and actually talk to their teacher and find out what it means for their individual student," he said. "Just like the SAGE data, a school grade may or may not have any bearing on how a student is doing individually. "
Other grades for individual schools can be viewed through the online data gateway on the Utah State Office of Education website, www.schools.utah.gov.
PACE report card
The governor's PACE data dashboard includes metrics that explore additional details, including reading and math proficiency rates, SAGE scores, school demographics and proficiency rates within those demographics.
PACE also includes a federal accountability report with annual objectives for students who are English learners, Hispanic, whites, students with disabilities and students who are economically disadvantaged.
On this year's accountability calculation, the median score for elementary schools was about 58 percent, and the median score for high schools was about 62 percent.
The report card includes statewide goals as part of Prosperity 2020, focusing on preparing students for college and careers. By that year, the governor hopes to have 90 percent of Utah's students proficient at math and reading, with graduation rates reaching the same percentage.
Last week, the Utah State Office of Education announced the state's graduation rate had climbed to 82 percent — a 2 percent increase from 2013.
"We've just been thrilled to see our graduation rates increase every year," Park said. "We're definitely moving toward that goal."
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