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In our opinion: A letter grade for each of Utah's schools

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 6:23 a.m. MDT

This fresh approach to school accountability is encouraging. The goal should be not to punish struggling schools, but rather to give them the clarity and support they need in order to improve. These grades give administrators and teachers an opportunity to improve and learn something new. (Shutterstock) This fresh approach to school accountability is encouraging. The goal should be not to punish struggling schools, but rather to give them the clarity and support they need in order to improve. These grades give administrators and teachers an opportunity to improve and learn something new. (Shutterstock)

The month of September, when a new school year is still in its infancy, is not typically a time to receive a report card. That changes today, when each school in Utah will receive a letter grade that reflects its performance in three key areas: proficiency, participation, and progress. The results will establish clear new state standards in education that will allow for greater transparency in the process for educators, parents, and students alike.

This has not quieted many of the naysayers, who think the program won't accurately reflect the truth about some Utah schools. To a small degree, they make some valid points, but the grading system overall is positive and illuminating.

Primarily at issue is a requirement that 95 percent of non-proficient students in any given school must participate in mandatory end-of-year testing to avoid the school receiving an automatic failing grade. State Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser has rightly acknowledged that the punitive grade for not meeting this requirement is "draconian," and that at least one school that might otherwise have received an A or a B will end up with an F this time around. Given that this will present a distorted picture of a school's academic condition, it's a penalty that ought to be modified going forward.

But the grading system itself is a long-overdue accounting of how Utah's public schools, including charters, are fulfilling their charge to educate and prepare the next generation of Utah residents.

Quite naturally, some folks will complain whenever accountability is measured, while others will raise mitigating factors or claim one or another aspect of the process is unfair. Still others will point fingers, putting the blame for poor performance on all but themselves.

And yet, until today many Utahns were unaware that certain schools were in fact performing poorly. We suspect many parents of children at these schools, however, were well aware and felt helpless.

Some will draw quick connections between income levels or large minority populations and performance. Those are important and instructive, particularly when it comes to knowing how the state should redirect its priorities and resources. It's just as instructive, however, to find schools that are exceptions to these trends and examine how they have learned to succeed.

For his part, Neiderhauser has expressed a commitment to making "slight modifications" to the grading criteria in order to correct flaws in the system. That's good news. Legislative flexibility is essential here. Any new program will need to be tweaked as it moves out of the planning stages and confronts reality for the first time.

Neiderhauser also anticipates that the state won't continue with both the school grading program and the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS), given that both programs are designed to perform many of the same functions. We hope he's right. As a rule, government loves redundancy, but having that much overlap in educational assessment does a disservice to the taxpayers who are paying for it.

This fresh approach to school accountability is encouraging. The goal should be not to punish struggling schools, but rather to give them the clarity and support they need in order to improve. These grades give administrators and teachers an opportunity to improve and learn something new. Since that is what people expect of Utah schoolchildren, it makes sense to expect the same thing from Utah's schools.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company