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Utah may trade school letter grades for more detail, include colleges

Published April 22, 2014 3:29 pm

Education • Herbert's education adviser unveils a plan that would include higher education as well.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's school grading system would spread to colleges and universities, include more information — and potentially drop controversial letter grades, under a proposal unveiled Tuesday by the governor's education adviser.

The proposal aims to be more transparent and to show how schools are progressing toward state leaders' education goals, Tami Pyfer explained. Those include:

• Seeing 66 percent of Utah adults hold postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020.

• Getting 90 percent of third, sixth and eighth-graders proficient in math and reading.

• Lifting the high school graduation rate to 90 percent.

Now, Utah K-12 schools receive a single letter grade of A-F, and higher education is not graded.

A new elementary school report card, for example, would show the school's third-grade reading proficiency, the percentage of students demonstrating kindergarten readiness and the percentage of third-graders proficient in math over time, as well as overall performance on state tests.

A proposed high school report card would show the graduation rate and the percentage of students scoring 18 or higher on the ACT over time.

It would also show overall achievement on state tests.

A university report card would show enrollment and degrees awarded, retention rates and credit load over time, among other things.

School report cards would also include breakdowns of school demographics, and, at the elementary and secondary levels, student performance among different income, race and ability groups. The report cards would include "snapshots" describing special programs, missions or honors.

Any changes to the state's school grading system would have to be approved by lawmakers and the governor before taking effect.

"We're not translating something through a complex formula," Pyfer told the Governor's Education Excellence Committee on Tuesday morning. "We're just showing you the actual data."

Utah schools received letter grades of A-F for the first time this past fall. Grades were determined through a formula, based on growth from one year to the next in academic performance; graduation rates; and achievement on statewide, end-of-year tests.

Proponents of the school grading system, which was inspired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's system in that state, say it's a transparent way to hold schools accountable.

Opponents, however, have decried the system as unfair, lacking in context and one-size-fits-all.

Utah PTA President Liz Zentner praised the proposal Tuesday, calling it the "best of all worlds." She said she hopes the state drops single letter grades for schools.

"You definitely have to look at all different kinds of things when you're grading a school," Zentner said. "You can't just give one letter grade."

McKell Withers, Salt Lake City School District superintendent, also thanked Pyfer for her approach. The district's high schools all received D's and F's in the fall, to the chagrin of parents and principals who argued the grades didn't take the schools' successes and challenges into account.

"Any attempt to try and simplify the manner in which you give good data that informs school improvement will be helpful," Withers said.

Not everyone, however, is in favor of dropping school letter grades.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he's open to changes to the school grading system and wants to learn more about Pyfer's proposal. He said, however, he would not be in favor of dropping letter grades for schools.

"Letter grades are the best communicator of achievement," Stephenson said. "I think we have to communicate with letter grades. Everyone understands them."

But Pyfer said during her presentation a single grade can show only so much.

"I believe this is more transparent, easy to read and easy to understand," she said of the proposal.

She said she designed the new proposed system at the request of the governor, who asked her to find a way to more comprehensively look at schools and measure the state's progress toward long-term education goals.

She said she'd like to see the proposal become the state's only accountability system, as opposed to being another measurement on top of the existing ones. The state also has another system, the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System or UCAS, in which schools are awarded points.

Pyfer said she'd like to work with other state leaders and potentially hold focus groups to hear ideas on how to improve upon the proposal.

Since the first grades were released in the fall, lawmakers have tweaked the system a bit.

The governor recently signed a bill, SB209, that, among other things, will exempt alternative schools from grading. It will also penalize schools where fewer than 95 percent of students participate in testing by dropping them one letter grade, rather than giving them automatic F's, as had been the case under the original law.