For years, Utah legislators criticized No Child Left Behind as a matter of principle because they believe the federal government (even President George W. Bush's federal government, where it started) should butt out of public education, and also because of its one-size-fits-all inflexibility.
Today, with the launch of the Legislature's school grading system and its lists of school grades, it's obvious the state has adopted many of the failed practices of NCLB.
Legislators behind the grading legislation say its purpose is to "shine a light" on schools with problems. That is essential. But whether this system does anything more than degrade the reputations of schools, which it surely does, or if it identifies truly failing schools better than other assessment systems, depends on what legislators do next.
Assigning letter grades to all public schools seems like a simple way of showing parents and educators which schools should get extra attention so they can improve the job they're doing. But, simplicity of evaluation should not be the primary goal. Improved student learning should be.
This system attempts to boil down performance to a letter grade by looking at test scores and individual progress (remember NCLB's "adequate yearly progress"?), but it does not allow for the vast differences in school demographics and missions.
Alternative high schools, for example, which enroll only students who have struggled in regular high schools, sometimes for most of their school careers, all received F grades. It may be the case that a particular alternative high school is doing a poor job, but it's impossible to tell from the pervasive F grade, given those schools' unique role.
It's not surprising that a charter school that emphasizes science and math received the top grade. The school attracts students who already have an interest in such subjects and are high achievers. Such factors should be taken into account.
West High School, known for its innovative programs, received an F grade because fewer than 95 percent of students took the tests on which the grades are based (remember NCLB's focus on attendance?). The school's graduation rate is far too low, but the grade should not ignore the school's unique accomplishments. Utah public schools are not cookie-cutter reflections of one another, and they shouldn't be.
Yes, Utah's graduation rate is too low. Yes, too many students, especially minority students, do not graduate. Yes, far too few high school graduates are prepared for higher education or jobs. Those are serious problems that must be corrected. To be useful, school evaluations should show specific deficiencies that can be rectified, and there should be a corresponding allocation of resources that schools need to fix the problems. School districts decide how to spend the money given them by the Legislature, but not much can change if the size of the pot remains the same.
There is no doubt some schools are deficient. But what are the causes, and what is the Legislature willing to do to help? School grading, by itself, is useless. Florida, the model for Utah's system, combined school grading with a cap on class size and much larger per-pupil allocation of revenue. Utah continues to invest the smallest amount of money per student in the nation, resulting in the largest class sizes and among the lowest teacher salaries.
Without a commitment to larger revenue allocations to F-grade schools to attract and reward excellent teachers and fund programs such as early-grade reading, prekindergarten and all-day kindergarten that are proven to boost academic success of young children, the Legislature is wasting everyone's time with school grades.