The more data available about the performance of Utah’s public schools, the better. The State Board of Education’s new accountability report, released last week, aims to give a clearer picture than the old system of providing a simple A through F letter grade to each school. It does this by tracking, among other things, how well schools prepare students for college, how well they teach English to foreign students, how well they teach core subjects and how they help those who are low performers.
This is a positive step, but it’s not a complete step.
Letter grades, although they can appear harsh and incomplete (what frazzled student wouldn’t agree?) do serve as stark motivators. Why not offer both the details of the new system and a letter grade for each indicator as well as for an overall assessment?
The new range of descriptions for performance — exemplary, commendable, typical, developing and critical needs — sounds too vague and euphemistic. “Developing” and “critical needs” are nice ways of saying below average and failing. Those may be stark terms, but they can act as exclamation points to problems.
In addition, the new assessments rely to a large degree on how well students do on the state-administered Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence tests, or SAGE. The problem here does not lie in the testing. It is that parents have the option to opt their children out of taking it. Many do so, calling into question whether SAGE may be said to reliably reflect a school’s overall performance.
Parental choice is important, but it’s unclear why children should be allowed to skip this test.
Having said this, we hasten to add that Utah’s old letter-grade system for schools had flaws. In the past, the criteria for achieving a high grade would change depending on how many other schools were givens A’s and B’s. This moving target was confusing. The criteria for success should be a constant measuring rod.
As a matter of public policy, few things are as important as making sure public schools are giving children a proper start in life, preparing them either for college or vocational training. However, few things are as complex as reliably monitoring how well this is being done.
A number of factors may be obstacles to success, including socio-economic backgrounds, the level of parental involvement at home and teacher performance. The new assessment places a good emphasis on tracking progress, or how much a student improves over the course of a year, over comparative scores.
Still, the overall goal must be to prepare children for success not only in Utah or the United States, but globally.
Utah schools seem to perform well nationally by many measures. USnews.com recently ranked the state’s public education system as the 20th best in the nation (its higher education system was ranked second). Yet on an international stage, American schools tend to lag behind the best in the world, as the Programme for International Student Assessment makes clear.11 comments on this story
Becoming more competitive internationally will take creative thinking and an accountability system that includes rewards as well as incentives to improve. It also will take a consistent, reliable and unchanging method of assessment.
That shouldn’t be too much to ask, even though politics often influences policies and leads to changes from year to year. Assessing a variety of measures, as the state school board has attempted to do, is at least a good step. We hope it remains a consistent approach.