Kecia Cox,
Bree and her sister Mia Cox get on a school bus in 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah received low grades from two separate education reports released recently.

The first, a national report card by advocacy group StudentsFirst, earned the state a D grade and a 25th-place ranking based on reforms such as school choice and performance-based pay.

In the second report, the annual Quality Counts report by Education Week, Utah ranked 38th in the country with a C grade, based on a more in-depth review of student performance and school-climate factors.

The grades likely would disqualify Utah from participating in extracurricular sports or serving in student government, but the state can take some comfort in knowing most of its classmates did not make the honor roll either.

Neither report was graded on a curve, with no state receiving an A grade. For StudentsFirst, two states earned the high score of B-minus, while 11 states received an F.

In the Quality Counts report, the national average grade was a C-plus, and the top-ranked state was Maryland with the only B-plus grade awarded.

Both reports are based on criteria chosen by the organizations promoting them, which education officials say fails to paint a dependable portrait of the state of education.

Judy Park, associate superintendent for the Utah State Office of Education, said many of the categories in Quality Counts are tied to funding, which partly accounts for Utah's low scores.

"It's just kind of an arbitrary criteria," Park said. "It's really only as good as you value their indicators."

The report by StudentsFirst has similarly received criticisms around the country for being little more than ideological posturing.

"Obviously, since it is a report card put out by an advocacy group, it's going to reflect the needs and wants of that organization," Utah State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said of StudentsFirst. "We have seen the report and are looking at it in its entirety, including Utah's relation to other states and the student performance in those states."

According to StudentsFirst, the State Policy Report Card is not based on "student achievement, school quality or teacher performance, but rather the policy environments that affect those outcomes."

Each state was graded on the education reforms in statute, specifically those that align with the StudentsFirst agenda, independent of their outcomes.

StudentsFirst was founded in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, who formerly served as schools chancellor for Washington, D.C., a position comparable — though more powerful — to that of state superintendent.

Rhee has been a controversial figure in public education, first for her dramatic reforms in the troubled Washington, D.C., school system despite little prior experience in education, and now for her aggressive lobbying for national educational reform, which has often been characterized as anti-union.

In a report by The New York Times, California's chief deputy superintendent is quoted saying his state's F grade by StudentsFirst is a "badge of honor." He described the organization as being focused on a narrow, unproven method to improve teaching and said the educators in his his state "just flat-out disagree with them."

"This is an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing," Richard Zeiger said. "I would have been surprised if we had got anything else.

When the StudentsFirst report card is broken down by category, Utah received D-pluses for elevating teaching, spending wisely and governing well, and a D-minus for empowering parents. Utah's education spending is often a point of political criticism, with the state allocating the smallest per-pupil figure in the country.

When asked about Utah's low grade, Judi Clark, executive director of Parents For Choice In Education, said that, if anything, StudentsFirst had been too generous.

"I think they probably gave us too much credit," Clark said.

The StudentsFirst report acknowledges that despite two-thirds of states receiving D or F grades, many states show momentum in moving toward reforms.

Peterson said that many of StudentsFirst's priorities, particularly empowering parents and equitable spending, are shared by Utah education officials.

Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill tying a portion of educator salaries to performance-based evaluations. Utah also allows students to attend schools outside of their geographical boundary, if space permits, and charter school students now account for 8 percent of the state's total public education enrollment.

"Utah parents are among the most empowered in the country with open enrollment, a strong charter school program and the availability of educational vouchers for students with disabilities," Peterson said. "The Utah State Board of Education, state Legislature and governor's office are all working on elevating the teaching profession."

Clark disagreed, pointing to the school capacity restrictions that limit open enrollment as an option for many families, as well as the caps placed on charter schools that have resulted in large waiting lists.

"There is room for improvement when we talk about charter schools," she said.

Clark said StudentsFirst is right to ding the state for not making student outcomes a significant part of teacher performance evaluations, as well as the lack of programs for at-risk students and detailed plans for turning around struggling schools.

In the Quality Counts report by Education Week, Utah received D grades for the teaching profession and school finance, a D-plus for K-12 achievement, C-plus for chance for success, B-minus for standards and accountability, and a B for transitions and alignment.

Despite scoring below the national average, the 2013 Quality Counts report marked an improvement for Utah, which was ranked 42nd in 2012.