Tribune Editorial: There’s more to a grade than test mastery

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Wasatch Junior High teacher Ben McGowan runs his eighth grade history class Tuesday September 13. Wasatch Junior High earned enough points to get an "A" in school grading this year. But the school will actually receive a "B" grade because changes to the law make the grades more difficult when too many schools get "A"s or "B"s.

If your student brought home an F grade on his report card, there would likely be weeping, wailing and perhaps even some gnashing of teeth. Or at least he’d lose his car keys.

But how do school administrators react when their schools receive an F grade? Indifference.

And that’s probably the right reaction. Because school grades, as we have argued before, multiple times, aren’t the best way to evaluate our schools. Which is why the state Board of Education is suspending the program and starting over.

And honestly, there’s nothing more frustrating than your kid coming home with a grade you know isn’t indicative of his smarts or his potential.

If there’s one thing the grades do tell us, it’s that we need more money in education. But we already knew that. State wide, only eight high schools received an A grade. Twenty-six high schools earned an F. In the Salt Lake City School District, West High School and Highland High School earned a C; East High School was marked with an F.

There is an honest need for school assessment of teacher quality and student performance. But there are better ways to track quality and improvement than relying on SAGE test scores. The test scores are neither cumulative nor comprehensive. Plus, it’s an opt-out test, and many parents choose to opt their children out. Over 20 percent of students in the Park City and Provo school districts opted out. The state wide average opt-out rate was 5.9 percent.

Plus, some schools last year improved their SAGE scores but received lower school grades overall, as thresholds increased when too many schools received A grades.

And we haven’t even mentioned yet how a school’s grade most closely tracks socioeconomic boundaries rather than student achievement.

We need better assessments of a student’s year long improvement that take into account socioeconomic status and year-to-year improvement.

The state board is developing a new results-based grading system that rejects grading on a curve, which necessitates that some schools fail regardless of the quality of their instruction. But changing the grading program again will be the seventh consecutive time the criteria has changed since implementation in 2011. Rep. Marie Poulson tried to neuter the worst parts of the grading program during this year’s legislative session with HB2411. It failed to pass.

Maybe it’s time we stop grading the schools and start grading the legislators.

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