Utah releases school report cards — without letter grades — after computer glitches in standardized tests

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former students, teachers, staff and members of the community gathered to bid farewell to the 60-year-old West Jordan Middle before it was torn down.

The Utah Board of Education has not assigned any letter grades in its annual school report cards for the past year — despite the requirement in state law to do so — blaming computer glitches that stopped thousands of students from completing their spring standardized tests and resulted in bad data for evaluating performance.

It’s the first time the board has said it would not be able to provide accurate rankings since it started doing the reports six years ago.

“Some schools were more affected than others with the testing interruptions,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the board. “So we’re trying to treat everybody equally and chose not to put up those scores.”

The decision comes after heavy pressure from teachers and administrators across the state, who questioned the validity of the exams after experiencing the interruptions in their classrooms. The board has insisted that the testing results are statistically sound overall. But a disclaimer on the report card website — utahschoolgrades.schools.utah.gov — notes that a few districts and schools might show “some inaccuracies” on a larger scale that could make their scores lower.

As such, the assessments released online Thursday provide only a general overview of a school’s achievement and growth, the progress of their English learners and, for high schools, how well they prepare students for continuing education.

The board has also declined, for now, to release a list showing the total points each school earned in its system. It typically does that each year, allowing analysis of those that ranked at the top and those that fell to the bottom. While each school has its points listed on its individual page (out of a total of 225 for high schools and 150 for elementary and middle), there is no way to compare across the more than 900 schools statewide, making it less transparent than in the past.

Darin Nielsen, the state’s assistant superintendent of student learning, said the board anticipates releasing a spreadsheet with that list possibly next week. “Our staff is still compiling that,” he said. “We continue to make updates. And I encourage the public to go on the state board’s website.”

Once there, parents, students and teachers can find the assessment for their individual school or district, as well as an overall look at the state. Rankings for achievement and growth are based on standardized test results and improvement on those — making those two measurements questionable this year because of the computer glitches. The score for English learners is determined by how quickly students who are non-native English speakers reach proficiency for their age.

High schools receive a fourth ranking, based on their ACT scores, graduation rate and certain coursework, such as the percentage of students taking advanced classes.

Each of those categories, in place of grades, is determined to be exemplary, commendable, typical, developing or critical needs. The Utah Legislature still defines those terms as essentially equal to A through F grades, with exemplary akin to an A and critical needs as an F. But there’s no one term given to define a school overall.

So far, Nielsen said, there do not appear to be any major trends or disruptions in the data — such as a majority of schools declining in achievement — and that most scores remained static despite the testing concerns. He also noted that the scores “seem to align” with other testing data in Utah, including NAEP scores.

“That’s definitely reassuring,” he added.

The testing glitches were experienced only in elementary and middle schools, which took the RISE exam. (High schools take the Utah Aspire Plus test.)

But because the state board didn’t calculate a single letter grade for schools, it’s difficult to directly assess which schools and districts declined from 2017 when, statewide, 74 schools received an A grade and 47 received an F. And, with no note on the website specifying the schools with known testing problems, it’s impossible to see which may have dropped based on the glitches.

The state’s website also does not appear to let users view the scores from the previous year for comparison. So Crescent Elementary School in Sandy, for instance, is ranked developing for growth this year. But there’s no way to toggle to 2018.

The spreadsheet from last year, retained by The Salt Lake Tribune, shows the school’s growth was previously considered typical, so the new ranking is a drop. It’s unclear, even further, if that change was based on having experienced testing glitches, though most of the standardized exam scores for the school went down.

Meanwhile, some teachers and administrators have anecdotally reported that the exam malfunctions with RISE, which was administered in grades three through eight, has affected their scores, including at least two schools in Ogden School District, according to the superintendent there.

The new report card system was first put in place last year when lawmakers granted the state board of education a yearlong reprieve from the single letter grades, allowing the board time to develop this new assessment model and new standardized testing for the scores it’s based on. This year, though, it was supposed to return to providing an overall letter grade.

Instead, the board is seeking another waiver from the Legislature to skip assigning grades for the 2018-2019 academic year.

“If they don’t provide that, based on the challenges we had with testing, the letter grades [for 2018-2019] would appear on the site,” in the future, Nielsen said.

The state board is under no set timeline to provide school grades — though it usually releases them each December or January — and will wait until after the Legislative session ends in March to see what happens before taking further action. But the state requires grades to be posted sometime during the year.

A bill to repeal school grades entirely failed last session after not getting a hearing in the Senate. The same lawmaker, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, intends to run the measure again. If it passes, the state board would not have to assign letter grades in the future.

Many support that move and liked the setup last year of the new system that did not include a single score.

“I think it’s definitely the direction to go,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “I think the dashboard that they created is far superior. It gives us a far more in-depth look at the holistic pictures of our schools, rather than just blaming and shaming with the letter grade.”

The testing window this last spring was marked by large-scale computer glitches and interruptions that came as Utah worked with a new testing company. Despite concerns reported in other states with Questar Assessment Inc., the board of education approved a $44 million deal as part of an effort to rebrand the annual exam, give it a new name and encourage more students to take it.

By the end of April this year, Utah had experienced five major testing interruptions. The outages here delayed more than 18,000 public school students in completing their assessments in April and May.

In response, the state has cancelled its contract with Questar and returned to its previous testing provider.

Meanwhile, new measurements were added in this year for how many students at each high school graduated and attended a Utah college, as well as the number of students, overall, at each school who missed fewer than 10 days of class.