New grades for Utah schools, released Monday by the state Board of Education, showed a decline in performance statewide for the 2016-2017 academic year, including the first-ever “F” grade issued in the Park City School District.

But in a letter sent to parents, Park City School District administrators expressed indifference to the grading system and the year-end SAGE tests that school grades are primarily based on.

“Because Park City School District has the highest opt-out rate in the state,” the letter stated, “the district does not use SAGE [testing] as a measure of student learning beyond fifth grade.”

Roughly one in every five Park City students declined to participate in SAGE testing last year, according to state school board data on opt-out rates. And among the students who did take the test, district spokeswoman Melinda Colton said, many gave only perfunctory responses on the computer-based exam.

Schools are not allowed to encourage participation in the test, and state law prohibits the use of SAGE scores in determining a student’s semester grades.

Two state government programs that rely on SAGE scores — school grading and targeting resources for turnarounds of struggling schools — undergo annual revisions, adding to a sense of unimportance this year around a testing system that many educators say students don’t take seriously, if they take it at all.

“If students don’t take [SAGE] then a lot of things go downhill pretty fast,” Colton said. “I hope that the state will look at this and realize we’re just one example. When students don't take it seriously and parents opt them out, this is what happens.”

Statewide, 74 schools received an “A” grade and 379 received a “B” this year, a decrease of 4 “A” schools and 27 “B” schools compared to 2016, according to school board data. Meanwhile the number of schools earning a grade of “C,” “D,” or “F” increased by 13, 20 and 4, respectively.

The school grades are based on a formula that sees points awarded for the number of students reaching grade-level benchmarks on SAGE, as well as year-to-year improvement in SAGE scores. At the high school level, graduation rates and ACT scores also contribute to a school’s grade.

The dip in “A” and “B” grades mirrors a corresponding drop in SAGE proficiency, according to Utah Board of Education data released earlier this month.

Schools have also seen a surge in the number of parents excusing their children from testing, with the statewide opt-out rate nearly doubling in three years from 3.1 percent in 2015 to 5.9 percent in 2017.

Park City and Provo School Districts saw opt-out rates above 20 percent last year. But some charter schools — which function as individual school districts under Utah law — saw the majority of their students decline to participate in SAGE testing, including 69.6 percent at Lumen Scholar Institute in Orem.

Highest SAGE opt-out rates

1. Lumen Scholar Institute: 69.6 percent

2. Timpanogos Academy: 69 percent

3. Mountain Heights Academy: 66.8 percent

4. Utah Career Path High School: 58.7 percent

5. Paradigm High School: 58.6 percent.

The Utah Board of Education is currently in the process of selecting a new year-end testing system for public schools, potentially replacing SAGE.

And school grades will be suspended for one year next fall as the state school board develops a new, results-based grading system to replace the current model, which grades on a curve with the expectation that a certain number of schools will fail yearly independent of overall educational quality.

“The Utah State Board of Education continues to look into the reasons behind student scores as well as school grades,” State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said in a written statement. “We are working with our governing partners both in the state and school districts and charters to take steps to improve student achievement.”

In Granite School District, where school grades improved overall this year, spokesman Ben Horsley said most grades correlate with the socioeconomic status and demographics of a particular area.

Grading is an “adequate” measurement of the number of students meeting grade-level expectations, Horsley said. But Granite administrators prefer to focus on year-to-year improvement, he said.

“It continues to be a poor measuring stick for quality instruction and overall educational outcomes,” Horsley said of school grading. “Our focus is definitely more on where we are seeing growth.”

Granite School District earned four additional “A” and “B” grades and five fewer “F” grades this year. Also bucking the statewide trend were Tintic High School and Emery County’s Book Cliff Elementary, which saw their grades improve from an “F” to a “B” in 2017.

East Midvale Elementary saw its grade improve by two levels, from a “D” to a “B,” a shift that fifth-grade teacher Raschell Davis attributed to a focus on content mastery.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raschell Davis works with her fifth-grade students at East Midvale Elementary School in Midvale, Utah Monday September 25, 2017. The school improved by two letter grades in the latest release of school grading.
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raschell Davis works with her fifth-grade students at East Midvale Elementary School in Midvale, Utah Monday September 25, 2017. The school improved by two letter grades in the latest release of school grading.

Rather than run through a yearlong schedule of lessons, Davis said, the school moved to a format that waits for at least 80 percent of a classroom to understand a concept before moving on to the next topic, while offering individual and small-group instruction where needed.

“We used to just teach one lesson after another,” Davis said, “and if they got it or not, we moved on.”

She also said she trusts her SAGE and school grading data because her school — as well as Canyons School District as a whole — has a low rate of students opting-out of SAGE testing.

“I didn‘t have anyone opt out, ever, the two years I’ve been here,” Davis said.

Danya Bodell, East Midvale Elementary’s vice principal, said it’s nice to see the school’s hard work recognized in a higher grade this year. But Bodell added that she’s not particularly concerned with improving, or even maintaining, the “B” grade level.

“It‘s exciting and fun,” Bodell said. “But we’re not going to be devastated if it stays or goes down.”

In Park City, Colton said administrators are keeping an eye on school grades, as consecutive failing grades could add Treasure Mountain Junior High to the school turnaround program, triggering a multi-year process of private mentoring and potential sanctions if the school fails to improve.

“We don‘t ignore them,” she said of grades, “but our parents do.”

Colton said the district welcomes the Board of Education’s discussions about replacing SAGE and amending the school grading program. Other tests and other accountability systems, she said, have potential to be more effective for students, parents and educators.

“We‘re hoping that the state comes up with a different measurement to use,” she said.