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Grading the system

Published August 31, 2013 1:01 am

School grades are fuel for change
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Parents, teachers and school administrators should not get too alarmed ­— or complacent — about the grades individual public schools receive Tuesday in the first-ever school grading project launched by the Legislature.

But they — and all Utahns — should be prepared to use the grades as ammunition to demand that their representatives take positive, constructive steps to help failing schools fix deficiencies on which the school-grading system has, in the words of legislators, "shone a bright light." And, in many cases, that means increasing money available to school districts, something legislators have perennially resisted.

Additional revenue will be needed to attract well-trained, performance-oriented teachers and principals to schools with large numbers of struggling students, the schools most likely to receive low grades under this system. A redistribution of existing resources — when Utah has the lowest allocation per student in the nation — is not the answer.

In following up on what happens next, Utahns can offer their evaluation — a grade, in a manner of speaking — of the school-grading system itself and the legislators who produced it.

First, if the system of boiling down the many factors that go into student achievement into one letter grade doesn't pinpoint specific problems that can be addressed, the Legislature's grading system itself is a failure.

Many educators are critical of the system because, in pre-high school grades, it considers only student test scores, how many students take the tests and whether students improve from one year to the next. It does not take into account the challenges faced by some schools: low-income families, large numbers of minority and non-English-speaking students.

As Senate President Wayne Niederhauser told The Salt Lake Tribune, "Schools don't pick their students, but they decide how well a student does in school." That statement is naive. Teachers and principals can only do so much to offset a child's situation at home that may work against academic achievement: busy parents, families who move often, even hunger. Overcrowded classes, and low teacher pay leading to high turnover, are challenges for all Utah schools.

High schools will be graded on test scores, how many take the test, college readiness as measured by ACT scores, and graduation rates. These factors are certainly important, but, again, the state must invest more in programs to help students who fall behind early and never make it to high school. Early-childhood education — state-funded preschool and all-day kindergarten — would go a long way to boosting students' success throughout their school years.

Those facts lead to the other, more important, criterion on which taxpayers, parents and educators should grade this new system: whether the Legislature is willing to follow through to provide the resources necessary to help improve particular schools that receive low grades.

A process of identifying schools that need help should be only the first step; providing that help is the next, most important step if legislators are really interested in helping public schools succeed — a goal we are afraid some legislators do not share.

Some conservative legislators would like nothing better than to use the grading system as an impetus to push for privatization of public schools through another tax-credit or voucher law.

Utahns emphatically rejected the Legislature's voucher law in a referendum in 2007, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from pursuing other methods of transferring taxpayer money to private schools. Using school grades to support this agenda is folly. Utahns are not so easily deceived.

The Legislature says the grading system will be useful in exposing schools' failings. But it should be useful also to educators and parents to expose the Legislature's failings if grading doesn't lead to increased investment in public schools.