Question: What is the best way to determine whether students of all socioeconomic levels and ethnic and linguistic backgrounds are learning as much as can be expected in public schools of widely varying quality, funding and parental support? (Give examples. Use the back of the page if necessary.)
The Utah Legislature’s obsession with trying to find a simple, and cheap, answer to the massively complex problem of improving public education in the state has recently taken the form of a system that issues letter grades — A to F — for each school.
In other words, the Legislature ordained that schools give multiple choice answers to essay questions.
The resulting fuss when the first round of grades was announced last fall, where schools struggling with low-income populations and high proportions of non-English speakers were destined for failure, generated more heat than light.
There was an objective formula for the factors considered in assigning the grades — such truly useful measures as graduation rates, academic improvement year over year and end-of-year achievement tests.
But by trying to reduce the maddeningly complex challenges before any public school to a single letter, on a system that gives far too little credit to schools overcoming what an Olympic diving judge would call their “high degree of difficulty,” the current grading system is worse than useless.
Enter Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. The other day Pyfer put forward another scheme for measuring the quality of individual public schools, one that would drop the foolish idea of trying to boil all matters down to a single letter and replace it with a more comprehensive set of standards.
Those measures would include the number of students reading and doing math at grade level as well as the number of students showing their readiness for kindergarten. That last measure is crucial to demonstrating not just what a school is able to do, but whether the students it is given to work with were ready.
The argument in favor of letter grades, that everyone understands them, is deceptive when it is not obvious what information they are communicating. The argument that bad grades get parents’ attention is insulting to parents, suggesting that they didn’t care before.
Pyfer’s ideas would be a significant improvement. They should be the start of a new conversation on the subject.