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Grading school grades: Parents speak out on accountability scores

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 8:13 a.m. MDT

Schools were hit with with both school grades and school performance scores in September. But what do the scores actually mean, and what can be done to change them? (Shutterstock) Schools were hit with with both school grades and school performance scores in September. But what do the scores actually mean, and what can be done to change them? (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Public schools in Utah were hit last month with competing reports on school performance.

In one corner is the school grading system, created this year by legislators with little input from the education community. The system assigns each public school in the state a letter grade of A, B, C, D or F.

In the other corner is the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, designed by the State Office of Education in response to a legislative mandate, which awards schools a point total that can be compared with median scores across the state and historical performance.

Both systems labeled many schools as failing or underperforming. But for parents whose students attend those schools, it may not be clear what the scores actually mean and what educators can or should do to improve them.

"We get a grade and then what do you do with it?" said Janna Slye, a special education teacher at Sierra Bonita Elementary School in Spanish Fork. "We don’t know because there isn’t anything in place to help us."

What do the scores mean?

Both school grading and accountability are based on high school graduation rates and student performance on Criterion Referenced Tests, the annual assessment students take at the end of a school year.

If a school received a low grade or accountability score, it is because too few students tested proficiently, too few students improved their proficiency compared with the previous year, too few students graduated, or a combination of all three.

The grades and scores do not reflect the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement or concurrent enrollment courses. They do not give points for extra-curricular or International Baccalaureate programs. They do not award administrators for maintaining small class sizes or efficient budgets.

And they are not attached to funding. That means schools stamped with a failing grade receive no additional resources to address the challenges that contribute to those scores.

Sierra Bonita Elementary received an A grade and an accountability score of 495 out of 600, well ahead of the state's median score of 434. But Slye said the scores are frustrating because the requirement for constant student improvement makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a high-scoring school to maintain its grade.

While the school where Slye teaches received an A grade, the junior high her children attend received a C.

"As a parent, I can see where that grade may have some significance," she said, "but as a teacher, I look at it and think it really doesn’t have as much significance as parents might think it does. I don’t think teachers are putting a lot of stock into it because they know how flawed that system is."

The question of the scores' significance was also raised by Jennifer Goodrich, a parent and member of the community council for the Con Amore School in Myton, Duchesne County.

"Personally, I know the teachers are doing everything they can to help these students, so the grade really doesn’t concern me," Goodrich said.

Part of the Duchesne County School District, Con Amore School is specifically designed for students with special needs and has an enrollment of 61. Because of its low enrollment, Con Amore was not issued a letter grade, but its scores would warrant an F under the school grading methodology. It was also one of the lower-scoring schools under the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System.

Those scores are consistent with many of the state's alternative schools, which in large part received low marks under both accountability systems.

Two of Goodrich's children attend Con Amore. Because of her involvement with the school, she said she knows what goes on and the effort being made to educate students. But parents at other schools receiving F, D or C grades may not realize that the grades and scores focus solely on test scores to judge a school's success or failure, Goodrich said.

"It’s not really reflecting how well the teachers are doing," she said. "It’s refelecting the attitude of the students they have."

For Patti Garrison, a school community council member at the alternative Landmark High School in Spanish Fork, the school's D grade is a continuation of the misperception surrounding the school and its students.

Landmark High, with a large population of at-risk students, earned a D under the school grading system and 294 points out of 600 under the accountability system, well below the state median of 419.

Garrison said her son, a senior, struggled at several schools before attending Landmark High and has seen success since enrolling there.

"His grades have gone from failing to A's and B's," she said. "I’m very pleased with (the school), and I tell everybody that. If their children are struggling at another high school, I say, 'You should look at Landmark.'"

Garrison said Landmark has its challenges, like any other high school, but overall she is pleased with the attentiveness of the teaching staff, the small class sizes and the commitment to students, most of whom do not have the same opportunities as typical Utah high school students.

"They’re not your normal high school. The kids are at-risk kids like mine, and I think they should be graded separately," she said. "Of course I’d like to see the (school's) grade improve, but I’m pretty happy with what they're doing right now. They’re motiviating those students that otherwise would be failing in other schools."

Do the scores matter?

Todd Cottle, chairman of the Logan High School Community Council, said his immediate reaction after Logan High received a C grade and a below-average accountability score was to dismiss both systems as arbitrary.

Cottle mentioned April's U.S. News and World Report rankings, which named Logan High School as the best comprehensive high school in the state and the third-best high school overall in Utah. He also spoke of his years of personal experience working with the school as a parent and community member.

"I have to admit, it doesn’t mean anything to me," Cottle said of the accountability reports. "I’ve lived in Logan for 30 years. My kids have all gone through Logan High. Who can tell me, better than I already know, what’s going on at Logan High School?"

As a member of the community council, Cottle is involved in the creation of a school improvement plan for Logan High School. He said for a school to improve its accountability scores, administrators would have to focus resources on the metrics that shape those scores — in this case, math, English and science Criterion Referenced Tests.

But since no additional resources are given to schools to help with school improvement, that would mean pulling resources away from other Logan High programs.

Cottle said parents and educators have seen this before — a new state or national program that judges schools based on a narrow set of criteria. But often those programs prove to have little bearing on what is actually happening at the local level.

"I think the school community councils probably have the best handle on what their schools need," he said. "That’s their mandate."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said there is value in focusing a school's efforts on English, math and science, since those are the core subjects necessary for a person to attend college or have a career.

"We need to strengthen those," he said. "Especially, I think, elementary schools need to have more focus on those core subjects because you’re bulding a base."

But Niederhauser said he doesn't necessarily think that focus should come at the expense of other academic programs. He said there's a consensus that electives like art and music create a learning environment that helps many students excel in core subjects.

"I think we want to cautiously go down that road and just make sure that we’re not de-incentivizing things that are actually helping in a broad way," he said.

Niederhauser, who sponsored the original school grading bill, said the grades provide clarity on how students at a particular school are performing. He said the task now is to study the grades and determine how they can be improved.

During last month's meeting of the Education Task Force, principals of high-scoring schools with large at-risk populations were invited to present on how they had bucked the trend of demographics. Many of the schools were recipients of federal Title 1 funding, and Niederhauser said lawmakers learned that targeted investments can have a substantial impact at the local level.

He said it was possible that in the future additional school improvement funding from the state could be tied to the accountability scores to assist struggling schools.

"With some targeted money, they can make some huge changes that really make the dial move," Niederhauser said.

LeAnn Wood said she has seen firsthand the potential for good the scores carry. When the first Utah Comprehensive Accountability System data were released last year, Wood was serving on the community council of West Jordan's Columbia Elementary School, which received disappointingly low scores.

"They were all so engaged in this discussion of what they could do better," she said of the staff at Columbia.

But Wood expressed frustration that the Legislature created school grading before the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System was given a chance to succeed. She also said that school grades don't show improvement to the same degree as the accountability system.

"Even an improvement of five points is an improvement," Wood said. "That five points wouldn’t make a difference on a B grade. It’s still a B."

Statewide, the latest accountability data show that schools improved from 2012 to 2013. The median score for elementary and junior high schools increased from 428 to 434 points, and the median score for high schools jumped nine points from 408 to 417.

Assuming the same percentage breakdown of school grading, those increases would mean the median accountability score remained a B at the elementary and junior high levels and a C at the high school level.

"I don’t think it's as helpful as the legislators wanted it to be," Wood said of school grades. "I’m not sure what they wanted us to really get out of it."

Wood said her hope as a parent is that schools drill down and identify exactly why they got the score and grade they did. If that leads to specific students and student populations being identified as underserved, then the systems will have succeeded.

Slye said she'd prefer a school grade that accounted for incremental growth, similar to the way the accountability system is scored. As a teacher, especially in her position working with special education students, success is often the product of small steps over time rather than large leaps, she said.

"Any progress whatsoever, any improvement whatsoever, should be counted toward your school because that’s what teachers come to work every day to do, to help your kids make progress," Slye said.

Lawmakers and educators have acknowledged that the methodology behind both accountability systems may require tweaks in the future. One particular element that has created tension is the requirement that schools test 95 percent of their students or face an automatic F grade and zero score.

Stepping back from the specific methodologies or the comparisons between the two systems, Slye said it is worthwhile to parents and educators to have access to a public evaluation of a school's performance.

"There is value there, depending on how it is carried out," she said. "It helps us as a school to see where we have weaknesses and where we need to make those improvements."

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