Ravell Call, Deseret News
Corine Barney picks up work assignments from students during her AP Calculus class at Davis High School in Kaysville, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. Utah's public schools received a second set of performance scores in a month with Monday's release of Utah Comprehensive Accountability System data.
Whether the points go up or not, we’re just trying to do the best job we can at helping students learn. —Nibley Elementary Principal Jeanette Christensen

SALT LAKE CITY — School performance scores from the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System are up compared to last year, according to data released Monday by the Utah State Office of Education.

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. Scores are taken out of a total of 600 points based on student performance on criterion-referenced testing as well as graduation rates at the high school level.

"This year’s UCAS scores help to confirm trends we saw earlier this year with our ACT and AP scores," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said in a prepared statement. "Utah’s public schools are improving.”

The accountability system is in its second year of releasing school performance data, but with the Legislature turning its attention to a new school grading system, it is unclear how long, or in what form, the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System will continue.

School grades were released on Sept. 3 and drew vocal criticism from members of the education community, who worried that basing the grades on a single test event painted too narrow a picture of school performance considering the stigma attached to a grade of C, D or F.

In contrast, scores from the comprehensive accountability system do not assign a letter grade but instead give a point total that can be compared to state averages and historical performance.

Individual reports for all Utah public schools, including both school grading and accountability system information, can be found on the State Office of Education website.

Judy Park, associate state superintendent, said that with two years of data under the accountability system, parents and educators are already able to make comparisons of a school's annual performance. She said the increase in median scores since 2012 shows that schools are improving and she expects the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System to continue.

She also said that while letter grades are easy to understand, that simplicity comes at the expense of specificity as a school's performance improves or worsens from year to year.

"Using the points, you can really see there’s improvement that may not show up in a larger designation," Park said. "They could go from 300 to 350 (points) and still be within the same letter grade, but that’s a huge improvement for a school."

The methodology behind the accountability system is also different than the calculation method behind school grades, making it possible for an individual school to score well in one system and poorly in the other.

High school students at Ogden's DaVinci Academy earned a D from the school grading system but scored 421 points under the accountability system. That score places DaVinci above the state median and would represent a B grade if the same grade breakdowns were applied to the accountability scores.

Several other D schools received the statistical equivalent of a C grade under the accountability system, including Granite Park Junior High, Plymouth Elementary School, Whitehorse High School, Hillsdale Elementary School and the C.S. Lewis Academy.

Schools that failed to test 95 percent of their students were given a score of zero under the accountability system. The same schools — including West, Viewmont and Ben Lomond high schools — were similarly punished with an automatic F grade under school grading.

The automatic F has been criticized by lawmakers, including Senate President Wayne Niederhauser who described it as "draconian" and suggested the minimum participation rule be changed to drop a school's grade by a single letter. John Jesse, director of assessments for the State Office of Education, said he would not be surprised if the automatic zero score is similarly discussed and tweaked by education officials.

"I think that will be a discussion for (the accountability system) as that's looked at and modified," he said.

Under the accountability system, Nibley Elementary School in Cache Valley scored the highest in the state with 587 points.

"We’re very grateful to see that the efforts and hard work of our staff and students have shown in the UCAS test results," said Cache County School District spokesman Kirk McRae.

Nibley Elementary Principal Jeanette Christensen said she is pleased with her school's score but acknowledges that because the scores are partly based on student improvement, holding the top spot in the state will be difficult.

"How much further can we go?" she said. "Whether we can be the very top year after year, probably not because of the way it’s done."

But she said the school faces a similar situation with school grading, and while she prefers the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, her staff will continue to focus on the needs of children independent of what the scores reflect.

"Whether the points go up or not, we’re just trying to do the best job we can at helping students learn," she said.

Of the remaining schools in the top 10, four spots were claimed by Salt Lake City School District's Beacon Heights, Wasatch, Dilworth and Ensign elementaries.

At the high school level, the Northern Utah Academy of Math Engineering and Science in Layton claimed the top spot with 541 points, followed by another early-college charter school, the Utah County Academy of Science, with 529 points.

Rounding out the top five high schools, Davis High School and Juab High School earned 524 points and 504 points respectively and the Academy for Math Engineering and Science in Murray earned 502 points.

Jesse said the increase in median scores shows upward movement among Utah schools, but he added that it is not yet clear whether the change is statistically significant.

He also said that next year, proficiency scores are expected to drop as the bulk of the new Common Core standards are implemented in Utah schools. The Common Core is designed to increase college- and career-readiness by raising the bar in each grade and has resulted in sharp declines in proficiency in Kentucky and New York, the first two states to begin testing the new standards.

Core proponents point to the drop in test scores as evidence of the new standards' rigor rather than a decline in teacher quality. Jesse said it's too early to know how severely Utah's scores will be affected, but he suggested that people will likely be "shocked" at the sudden decline.

"The expectations are significantly higher," he said of the Common Core. "Initially you’re not going to have as many students that are declared proficient because becoming proficient is a lot harder, which is what we want."

Highest-scoring schools

Nibley Elementary School (Cache): 587 points

Beacon Heights Elementary (Salt Lake): 577 points

Wasatch Elementary School (Salt Lake): 571 points

Oak Hills Elementary School (Davis): 568 points

George Washington Academy (Charter): 567 points

Windridge Elementary School (Davis): 556 points

Tonaquint Intermediate School (Washington): 556 points

Dilworth Elementary School (Salt Lake): 553 points

Desert Hills Middle School (Washington): 553 points

Ensign School (Salt Lake): 552 points

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