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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Sixth-graders in Patti White's class work on projects at Morningside Elementary School in Holladay on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. The school has an A grade from the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System.
(School grading) has really started a dialogue. We've got more people engaged in the idea of how our schools are performing and how we can better prepare our students. —Judi Clark, Parents For Choice in Education

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this month, Utah's public schools received their first letter grades under a new system that evaluates a school's performance and offers a letter grade, from A to F.

On Sept. 30, schools will be hit with new scores from the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, the state's other education performance evaluation system that is now in its second year.

"They’re based in the same data set, students taking the test," John Jesse, director of assessments for the State Office of Education, said. "It’s the exact same (student) scores; however, we’ve done some different things with that data set."

Letter grades are not assigned with this evaluation, but the results will be comparable to the grades released Sept 3, when 11 percent of schools 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.

Differences in the calculation means there will be instances of high-scoring schools in the school grading system falling below the state average in the report, with others with a poor letter grade rising, Jesse said.

Here's why:

The reports will include a breakdown of a school's score, as well as how that school's overall points, achievement points and growth points compare to the state average.

Jesse said neither evaluation system is more accurate than the other; they reflect different things. In both systems, schools are awarded points based on student proficiency — referred to as achievement points — and the improvement students demonstrate year to year, referred to as growth points.

But in the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, points for graduation rates are included in the achievement category, whereas under school grading an additional 150 achievement points are possible at the high school level, meaning the impact of student growth on a school's final score is lessened.

Next year, when ACT scores are added to school grading, that imbalance between growth and achievement will be even more pronounced.

"That means the ratio between achievement points and growth points has been changed significantly," Jesse said of the school grading methodology. "I would suggest that if you look at it statistically, it makes it so that growth isn’t being weighted to any significant degree."

The comprehensive accountability system also uses median scores in its calculation of growth, meaning that every individual student's performance is reflected in the overall points that a school receives. The school grading system establishes a minimum growth percentile, only awarding points to students who score above a set threshold.

"Which one is right? Neither one is right," Jesse said. "It’s based in values and they should both be defensible."


Judi Clark, executive director of Parents For Choice in Education, which advocated for school grading and collaborated with lawmakers in drafting the bill that led to school grading, said the grading system is designed to hold high schools accountable for how well they prepare students for higher education. It is not designed to outweigh student growth.

"Having additional points for college-readiness and graduation gives a different perspective as to the performance of high schools as a whole," she said. "It’s really about properly measuring the outputs of our high schools and a major component of a high school’s success is in their graduation rate and college- and career-readiness assessments."

School grading and the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System have been at odds since March, when legislators passed the bill that made school grading a law with little input from educators and the State School Board.

In 2011, the State Office of Education began working on the comprehensive accountability system, intended to serve as the state's lone accountability system, which was ultimately approved by the U.S. Department of Education as part of Utah's waiver from the requirement of No Child Left Behind.

That waiver ensures that, at least for the time being, Utah will operate with two competing accountability/grading systems. Both educators and lawmakers have said they want to return to a single system, but the two camps remain divided on which system should cede to the other.

"I think it’s fair to say that the State (School) Board has not had a conversation about submitting school grading to the federal government," said Associate State Superintendent Judy Park. "That has not been on the agenda, nor has it been a discussion of the State Board of Education."

Achievement and growth

She said the comprehensive accountability system was developed under a set of guiding principles, which included a desire to reflect both achievement and growth and to create a system that makes it possible for all schools to demonstrate success.

She said school grading does not meet that principle because it does not allow for all schools to reach an A-grade status.

"I do not believe that is possible," she said.

She also said the school grading system's focus on achievement and use of a minimum growth percentile makes it difficult for a school with a large below-proficient population to improve its grade, even if students show significant growth from year to year.

"It creates a pass/fail system and pass/fail always creates a ceiling," she said. "That high growth will never be allowed to offset the other factors and raise that school's grade."

But Clark said that while school grading is open to alteration by the Legislature, that system, and not the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, is the one recognized in Utah statute as the state's school accountability system. In that sense, she said, school grading already is the only accountability system in the state and should be submitted to the federal government accordingly.

"It’s our state’s accountability system," Clark said. "I think it only makes sense to complete the simple amendment that’s been out for years that would allow them to accept school grading as our federal accountability system as well."

She also said that in just a few short weeks, school grading has achieved its goal of being a simple, easy-to-understand metric that students, parents and educators can use to evaluate the performance of a school.

"It has really started a dialogue," Clark said. "We’ve got more people engaged in the idea of how our schools are performing and how we can better prepare our students."

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