Op-ed: School grading system is a failure of the state, not schools

First Published      Last Updated Feb 11 2017 01:12 pm

Senate Bill 59, Utah's School Grading Act, passed in 2011, was controversial. At the time, many expressed concern that grading might accurately represent the affluence or poverty of a community, but not a true accountability of a school.

Now, several years later, those fears are realized. School grading has become the public shaming of hard working schools and educators who must work with impoverished populations where there is a high incidence of language difficulties, and need for special education.

Because of this, it is almost impossible to recruit teachers to teach in areas of special needs. The Ds and Fs these schools receive are a far cry from the value of the education received. For this reason and several others, we must re-evaluate the decision to assign schools a letter grade.

The evidence used to calculate grades, mostly coming from the SAGE standardized test scores, is flawed and inaccurate. Students taking these lengthy tests are not motivated to perform well as the test results cannot count toward their grade. Also, parents statewide have chosen to opt their children out of SAGE testing at a high rate, significantly altering the data. Even one of the best known international standardize assessments, PISA, openly admits the flaws stating that scores vary greatly along socioeconomic lines. Grading schools based on standardized tests doesn't give parents any valuable information other than the socioeconomic status of the school at that given time.

A single letter grade is not an adequate reflection nor does it provide enough information to evaluate a school because the criteria for calculating a grade focuses on only a few core subjects. A school may have excellent music, art, athletic, AP or IB offerings along with other outstanding programs that are not considered in the formulation of the letter grade. A good example is West High School, which was recognized nationally for excellence in educational offerings, but still received low grades according to our school grading criteria.

Grading schools forces school districts and administrators to focus too much energy and time on testing in the quest for the desired "A" grade, frequently at the expense of a broad, rich curriculum and a greater variety of educational opportunity for students. Adding to this pressure, is the fact that our Legislature alters the criteria for grading almost every year making the method of grading hard to understand and the desired grade almost impossible to achieve because the goal keeps moving. Rather than focusing on common goals for education, we are pitting teacher against teacher, and school against school in a senseless competition.

Finally, there is no concrete evidence that school grading has had any positive effect in improving student outcomes in the classroom. Instead it has demoralized communities and schools. Grading has undermined teachers' confidence in their own abilities driving them from the classroom particularly in areas with special needs. Also, the constant focus on testing has frustrated parents and students. It is time to re-evaluate the value of school grading and consider another approach to determine if students are learning. This is the reason I am sponsoring HB241 this legislative session, which removes letter grades in evaluating schools, and instead focuses on a multifaceted dashboard system of accountability.

Rep. Marie H. Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, represents District 46 in the Utah House of Representatives.