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Principals request alternative grading system for Utah's alternative high schools

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 11:33 p.m. MDT

A panel of Utah alternative high school principals discussed the challenges their schools face from school grading with members of the Education Task Force. (Shutterstock) A panel of Utah alternative high school principals discussed the challenges their schools face from school grading with members of the Education Task Force. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Many in the education community cried foul when Utah's first school grades were released last month, criticising lawmakers for labeling schools as failing based solely on test scores and graduation rates.

On Tuesday, principals from four of Utah's alternative high schools told members of the Education Task Force that due to their schools' unique challenges, earning a passing grade is not just difficult, it's all but impossible.

"Based on that criteria, every alternative school failed," said Kathleen Chronister, principal of Mountain High School in Kaysville. "And every alternative school will continue to fail if we apply the same criteria that are used in the traditional high school setting."

Mindi Holmdahl, principal of Salt Lake City's Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, said the grades weren't reflective of the work being done at alternative schools.

And Rosanna Ungerman, principal of Independence High School in Provo, said alternative school educators would like their students and schools to have the possibility of showing something besides automatic and categorical failure.

"They shouldn’t be graded on the same scale with the same levels of proficiency and the same system," Ungerman said. "What we’re asking is for an alternative grading system for alternative schools."

Alternative high schools typically serve students who otherwise struggle in the traditional school system, whether that be as a result of disciplinary measures, substance abuse, behavioral concerns or social anxiety.

Students who attend such schools are disproportionately mobile, often attending several schools as they progress toward graduation and both arriving at and departing from the alternative school at irregular points in the academic calendar.

Because school grades are based on the growth a student demonstrates year-to-year on criterion-referenced tests, large swaths of the student body at alternative schools do not factor in to the school grading system's calculations.

The grades are also based on graduation rates, but a large proportion of the students who attend alternative schools do so because they are severely off track for graduation.

"I don’t have a full cohort group. I don’t have them for a full academic year," Chronister said. "They are working uphill and working as hard and fast as they can."

Chronister said roughly three-fourths of her student body are seniors who attend the school for as little as four months. She also said the majority of her seniors arrive at Mountain High School almost a full academic year behind in terms of the credits required for graduation.

For many of her students, there simply isn't the time necessary to earn a high school diploma before transitioning into an adult education program, Chronister said. And those students reflect badly on the grade of an alternative high school, she said, but the schools receive and assist them anyway.

"What we’re really good at is re-engaging dropout students," Chronister said. "We’re about taking that young person as far as we can for the time that we have them."

Chronister suggested developing a grading system that utilizes a student performance index in place of a graduation rate and rely on attendance as opposed to performance on criterion-referenced testing.

She said the Utah State Office of Education has worked with several schools to develop an alternative to its Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, which similarly evaluates school performance but without the issuance of a letter grade.

"Most of our students have an attendance issue, so that increase in individual attendance is a key indicator that a young person is ready to do school and move into a young adult responsibility," Chronister said.

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he is supportive of some type of change in the grading system. But he added that the majority of Utahns are aware of the challenges facing alternative high schools and are not troubled by the low grades they received.

"Am I shocked that you got an F?" Gibson asked. "Ninety percent of parents who know the kids you’re dealing with are not shocked."

He also suggested that in their current form, the grades for schools carry little weight in that there are no incentives or punitive measures attached to them.

"I don't care what your grade is," Gibson said. "You shouldn't care what your grade is until there's some funding mechanism to it."

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