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Grades for Utah schools expected to stir controversy

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 12:40 p.m. MDT

The State Office of Education will release the first school grades next Tuesday under a state law that evaluates schools based on proficiency, participation and progress. (Nick Geranios, Associated Press) The State Office of Education will release the first school grades next Tuesday under a state law that evaluates schools based on proficiency, participation and progress. (Nick Geranios, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public schools will receive their first report cards next week under a new school grading law and both lawmakers and educators are bracing for the anticipated backlash.

On Tuesday each school in the state will receive an overall letter grade based on proficiency in language arts, mathematics and science as well as the growth students demonstrate year over year on end-of-level testing. For high schools, the grades will also reflect graduation rates and, beginning next year, student performance on the ACT exam.

But the changes also require that 95 percent of students participate in end-of-level testing. Failing to do so results in an automatic F grade and Utah State Office of Education officials said Tuesday several schools fall into that category.

Associate State Superintendent Judy Park, who along with other officials met with members of the media Tuesday to discuss the school grading process, lauded school grading as an accountability system for schools. But she said there are several metrics that illustrate a school's success or failure that cannot easily be simplified into a single A or F letter grade.

"There’s a lot of data points that are meaningful glimpses into the success of our schools," Park said. "(School grading) is one methodology for looking at schools and certainly there are a lot more."

School grading was originally proposed by now-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, in 2011 as a method of providing clear performance data to parents and students and as a replacement to Utah's U-PASS system, which rated schools as either achieving or not achieving a series of performance benchmarks.

Data from U-PASS were released consecutively with the much-maligned pass/fail adequate yearly progress reports of No Child Left Behind, resulting in two distinct state and federal accountability systems that presented conflicting views on the performance of Utah's schools.

Last year, Utah received a waiver from No Child Left Behind when the U.S. Department of Education approved the state's use of the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS, which had been developed by the State Office of Education. That system will continue under the term's of Utah's No Child Left Behind waiver in addition to Utah's use of school grading, but Niederhauser said Tuesday that he expects the state to return to using a single accountability system in the future.

"I don’t think we’ll have two systems for long," he said. "We already know there’s some slight modifications that need to be made."

One of those changes, he said, is the requirement that 95 percent of students participate in end-of-level testing. Niederhauser called the mandated F grade for those failing to do so a "draconian" measure.

While the individual school reports are not yet available, Niederhauser said there are six Utah high schools that fell below the 95 percent threshold and were penalized with an F grade, including one school that would otherwise have scored an A or B.

"That’s the one I’m concerned about because now they automatically get an F," he said. "I’ve had a discussion with the principal and he’s very upset."

Niederhauser said he would prefer to see the law changed so that a school's grade is lowered by a single letter if less than 95 percent of students take the test. But he added that the principal of the school in question, which he would not disclose ahead of next week's reports, assured him that his school would achieve 95 percent next year, which is precisely the goal of the school grading law.

"That is the reason why we’re bringing the light and transparency to these things," Niederhauser said. "You’re going to have at least three more students in that school that won’t fall through the cracks and take the test."

He said he recognized the reports were likely to generate some backlash from parents and teachers as schools receive less-than-exemplary grades. But he said he hopes the conversation will focus on what can be done to improve and move forward, rather than finding fault with the methodology.

"I hope that it's not directed at school grading though, because the schools are performing where they are and we need to shed a light on it," he said. "We need to bring some clarity and some energy to the problems and we have to also say that there’s a lot of A's and B's out there. There’s a lot of great success taking place."

Park, answering a question about whether the average grade in the state will be a C, emphasized that no monetary reward or punishment is attached to the grades. She said the grades are intended to highlight successes and incentivize improvement and added that much like the grades students receive on their individual report cards, the connotation of a particular letter varies from person to person.

"I know at my house when a child came home with a C, I didn’t always meet that C with congratulations," she said. "For some people, A's are expected. For other people, A is amazing, joyous, a recognition very few people can attain."

Niederhauser said his intent was never to punish schools, but to give educators the tools they need to move the dial on student performance. He gave the example of Florida — which saw improvement in the scores of its lowest-performing students after implementing school grading — and said the focus of every school district, the State School Board and the Utah Legislature should be on helping each student succeed.

"I know that there will be some opposition, that there are certain organizations that don’t want to do school grading, but the results in other states, especially Florida, have been profound," he said. "Is this the end? No, this is only the beginning."

The state officie of education meeting can be viewed at state office's website.

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