Grades for Utah schools bring strong reaction from parents and educators

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3 2013 6:40 p.m. MDT

Principal Parley Jacobs talks about failures of the new statewide grading system, at West High School Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Principal Parley Jacobs talks about failures of the new statewide grading system, at West High School Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's controversial school grades were released Tuesday, drawing strong reaction from parents, educators and lawmakers seeking explanation for the results of this first-of-its kind report.

The grades, available on the website of the State Office of Education, are intended to increase school accountability by giving parents a clear and concise snapshot at the academic preparation of Utah's children.

"I think this is the most significant day for education in the last 20 years," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. "Every parent wants to know how his or her child’s school is doing and this is the best tool they’ve ever had."

Of the state's 855 public schools, 11 percent received an A grade, 45 percent received a B, 30 percent received a C, 10 percent received a D and 4 percent received an F.

West High School, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) West High School, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The grades are determined by a point system that scores schools on the number of students proficient in English, math and science, as well as growth in proficiency and, in the case of high schools, graduation rates.

To earn an A grade, a school must receive between 80 and 100 percent of the total points possible, with 70-79 percent translating to a B, 60-69 percent for a C, 50-59 percent for a D and a F signifying less than 50 percent.

Seven Utah high schools received A grades, 60 received B grades, 45 received C grades, 15 received D grades and 16 received F grades.

Several schools were penalized with an automatic F due to the number of students who failed to take the criterion-referenced tests the grades are based on. Schools must test 95 percent of their students and 95 percent of their below-proficient students in order to avoid a failing grade.

West High School, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) West High School, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The grades have also come under fire from educators who say they stigmatize and under-appreciate the work being done at schools in low-income areas of the state.

"You could line up the socio-economic status of the schools, in other words poverty, from highest to lowest and see a pattern of those grades across the state," Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers said.

Withers said in most cases where a school bucked that trend – such as Salt Lake City's Glendale and Northwest middle schools – it coincided with that school receiving additional resources from the federal government.

"It takes a couple million dollars at a highly economically impacted school to change the trajectory, to help teachers have the professional development, the time, resources and materials and the investment in instruction to make a difference," he said.

Viewmont High School Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Bountiful. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Viewmont High School Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Bountiful. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Few consequences

Among the criticisms of the new release is that there is no financial support or consequences tied to Utah's school grading system.

Natalie Gordon, a parent of three children in Davis County schools, said the grades should be used to identify schools that require increased support. She said her daughter attends an elementary school that received a C grade, which didn't surprise her due to the number of low-income students at the school.

"My main concern was we’ve got a C now, what can be done to change it?" Gordon said. "There’s no extra funds. There’s no remediation, there’s no class size reduction, there’s no reading aides. They’re just saying ‘OK you’ve got a C, good luck with that.’"

In Davis School District, Viewmont High School scored 567 points out of 750 total. That score is higher than those of district sister schools Bountiful High, Clearfield High, Layton High, Northridge High and Woods Cross High.

But because three below-proficient Viewmont students failed to take the criterion-referenced test, Viewmont received an automatic F grade compared to the other schools' B grades.

Viewmont Principal Dan Linford called the school grades a "sideshow." He said that because of how the grades are designed, his school would have been better off if those three students had simply logged on and missed every question on the test.

"I would love it if the state would let me just fail every kid that didn't take the test," he said. "The law is in place so that schools don't hide their low-achieving kids. We had 98 percent of our students take the test, we weren't trying to hide anybody."

At Davis High School, which received an A grade, Principal Dee Burton said he had mixed feelings about the new system. He said he was excited about his school's high marks but concerned about sister schools in the district that work just as hard, or harder, but were not recognized for their efforts.

He also said that because the grade is partly based on growth, high-performing schools could reach a point where they can't reasonably improve enough to maintain their grade.

"Part of the grade is based on progress," he said. "When you get to a certain point you can’t progress anymore and the only direction is down."

Dee said Davis High is facing that scenario already with its English proficiency scores. He said next year the school's grade could dip despite high student achievement.

"Absolutely," he said. "It worries me to death."

West High School

Another school hit by the mandatory 95 percent participation requirement was West High School in Salt Lake City. The school tested 92 percent of its eligible below-proficient population, which resulted in the school receiving an F instead of a D grade.

But West High School Principal Parley Jacobs said the automatic F is only one of the ways school grading fails to reflect a school's performance.

"We're not afraid of the numbers," he said. "The numbers, the way they've been designed, don't tell an accurate story."

Jacobs said West High School saw increased proficiency in almost all of its demographic subgroups. But because the growth in many areas did not reach the 40 percentile required by school grading – which evaluates a student's performance relative to a cohort of similar students – that growth did not contribute to the school's grade.

He said his staff will carefully look at the numbers and work toward increasing West's performance. But he said the grading system gives him little incentive to strive for an A grade. He said the methodology behind the grades makes it almost impossible for a large, urban school with a highly diverse student body to achieve top marks.

"The way this is designed, West High School will never get an A," Jacobs said.

Elementary school

Jessica Dunn, a Utah parent who previously taught third grade at Adelaide Elementary for 12 years, said the grades not only fail to address the increases made by at-risk students but also demoralize the efforts of educators.

"The school that I just came from in Davis County got a C," she said. "Our students are making leaps and bounds. Their growth isn't being reflected and the teaching efforts are, once again, being stomped upon."

Judi Clark, executive director of Parents For Choice in Education, said she sees the conversation already generated by the new grades as a point in favor of the new system. Her organization advocated for school grading and collaborated with lawmakers in drafting the bill that made school grading law, and Clark said while some tweaks may be needed, the grades' overall goal is being accomplished.

"In the last few hours we've suddenly seen this exponential growth in everyone talking about how our schools are performing, are our students ready to go on to the next level, are they properly prepared," she said. "That's really what school grading is about."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has expressed a willingness to alter the specifics of the law, particularly the 95 percent participation requirement. He said last week the automatic failing grades are "draconian" and he would prefer to see a school drop a single letter grade for low participation.

But on Tuesday, Withers expressed some frustration at the ongoing efforts to fine-tune the school grading law, which was originally passed in 2011 and has undergone several amendments, including a late-hour substitution bill during the most recent legislative session and unfulfilled talk of a special session to address lingering concerns.

"People have gone backwards on their commitment to fix this law," Withers said.

The school grading system also exists contemporaneously with the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS, which was developed by the State Office of Education and is generally prefered to school grading by the education community. Data from UCAS will be released later this month.

In a statement that accompanied the release of the grades, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove encouraged parents to view the individual school reports but cautioned against drawing too firm a conclusion from a single letter grade.

“There are many other measures of schools," he said. "I encourage those of you with students in high schools to look at the results of ACT, SAT and AP tests there. For a parent, the best measure of a school is what happens between a student and a teacher.”

Dunn said she is concerned how other parents will respond to the grades, particularly for schools labeled as failing. But she said she hopes the grades lead to increased parent involvement and volunteerism.

"I'd first ask them what they know about their school," she said. "Most parents that are involved will already know the quality of school their students attend."

Gordon said she hopes parents will take their questions and concerns to the schools themselves. She also said parents should recognize that no grading system is perfect.

"I want them to realize that if you feel like your kid is getting a good education and doing well, that’s the most important thing," she said.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that the school grades are a good starting point for dialogue and discussion. He said the good news is that 56 percent of Utah's schools received either an A or B grade.

"That’s indicative of great teachers and good administrators that are trying to do the best they can with limited resources," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com Twitter: bjaminwood

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company