For the first time, Utah’s traditional and charter public schools have received letter grades of A through F — hailed by lawmakers as a move toward transparency and decried by educators as an unfair, one-size-fits-all ranking.
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State lawmakers who passed the accountability system earlier this year — now one of two used to evaluate Utah schools — said it will improve the quality of education.
As an example, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, pointed to West High School, which received an automatic F grade because it did not have a 95 percent participation rate in testing. Regardless, he said, the school would have gotten a D grade because of its poor performance.
The Salt Lake City high school is known in part for its International Baccalaureate program for students with strong academic skills. But Niederhauser notes its graduation rate, which was 72 percent in 2012, but lower for some subgroups of minority and lower-income students.
"They’re failing a huge population of their students," Niederhauser said. "...The IB program is a beautiful paint job covering up some pretty big problems."
West High School Principal Parley Jacobs emphasized that his school is a "comprehensive" high school, teaching subjects far beyond the language arts, math and science scores considered in grading. Social studies, world languages, fine arts, health/PE, advanced math such as calculus are all taught at the school, which also offers rigorous courses such as the IB program and Advanced Placement, he said.
The grades also don’t take into account factors such as student engagement and school climate, he said. Jacobs said most if not all of West High students showed some academic growth. "We’re not an F school, we’re an A school with all we’re doing with kids," Jacobs said.
How grading works » School grades are calculated on a "bell curve," which means most Utah schools fall somewhere in the middle, while a few received A and F grades, said John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability at the State Office of Education.
In a letter released last week, the Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Superintendents Association and Utah Association of School Business Officials outlined their objections, compiled by Patti Harrington, executive director of Utah School Superintendents Association.
"One size does not fit all," Harrington said. "If we’re all moving toward proficiency, why do we want the effect of a bell curve forcing some into failure and others into success?"
The superintendents contend the school grades will particularly harm schools that serve low-income and minority neighborhoods and undo efforts to win community support.
There are no specific consequences of the grades — no financial rewards or penalties — except the boost or blow to school reputations.
Elementary, middle and junior high schools can earn up to 600 points. Half are based on what proportion of their students are proficient in English, math and science. The other 300 points depend on the progress students make from one year to the next. The state tracks students individually from year to year, and measures their learning gains compared to their academic peers.
High schools get up to an additional 150 points from graduation rates. Starting next year, they will receive up to 150 more points based on scores from the college and career readiness ACT test, which all juniors will be able to take for free.
Clarity or ideology? » Proponents such as Niederhauser said the school grades are modeled after Florida’s system. In 1999, led by then newly-elected Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida lawmakers passed a comprehensive set of K-12 reforms that included school grades.
Niederhauser said grades in Florida "brought a clarity and focus" to lower-performing students. Florida’s student "demographics are different than ours," he said. "But we have a lot of children in our minority population that are not graduating."
Utah’s statewide graduation rate in 2012 was 78 percent. The rate for white students was 82 percent, and it was 78 percent for Asian students. Among other groups:
» Hispanic and Latin American students, 63 percent.Next Page >
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