Districts to get first letter grade

Aug 28 2013 - 12:16am



On Tuesday, Utah parents can open an online report card assessing their children's schools, and view a single letter grade assigned to sum up overall success.

And for hundreds of parents in the Davis, Weber, Box Elder and Ogden school districts, that grade will be "F."

Tuesday will bring the release of data from a new school grading system, based on Utah Senate Bill 271. Each school's report will contain additional information, based on student test scores, test participation and graduation rates, among other things. School districts also will be assigned a letter grade.

But critics of the school grading system say the report adds no real information to the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS) school assessment program already in place. The main new feature will be the letter grade.

"There is so much emotion attached to a letter grade," said Logan Toone, Davis School District director of assessment, evaluation and research. "If one of my own children comes home with a 'C' on her report card, I don't think that's good enough. I wonder what the community reaction to a letter grade will be."

Some local districts have been advised that the average grade given will be "C," although Judy W. Park, Utah State Office of Education (USOE) associate superintendent, did not directly answer the questions when posed at a Tuesday news conference.

If the grades conform to a bell curve, as district officials believe, most schools would get "C" grades. A smaller percentage would get "B" and "D" grades. The smallest percentage of schools would get "A" and "F" grades.

"Our concern is how in the world does our district get a grade of 'A,' and our best school, which is in the Top 20, gets a 'C,' " said D'Lynn A. Poll, Morgan School District business manager. "Our very best school gets a 'C' because there is not room for it to improve."

Poll said all other MSD schools are getting "B" grades. The Weber School District and Davis School District both reported getting everything from "A" to "F" for individual schools. The Box Elder School District and the Ogden School District reported grades ranging from "B" to "F", although the OSD is contesting one of its low grades, and expects to hear the USOE's decision on Thursday, an OSD official said.

Doug Jacobs, Morgan School District Superintendent, said the grading system provides a distorted snapshot of Utah schools.

"I support school accountability," Jacobs said. "I believe that the new grading program is significantly flawed and just makes the entire effort even more complicated and confusing. We need to focus on the already developed UCAS and make improvements there rather than implementing two systems."

Among the features district officials consider flawed or misleading are:

* A failing grade for any school at which fewer than 95 percent of students turn up for testing.

"If only 94 percent of students show up, the school gets an 'F,'" Toone said.

* The way student growth is calculated.

"It essentially diminishes any growth beyond a minimum standard," Toone said. "A student who makes extreme growth and a student who makes moderate growth are represented the same way, and both contribute the exact same value to a school's letter grade."

* The cut-off point for student growth.

"You could have kids who are performing, but at some point, a kid at a certain percentile point gets growth, and a kid half a point lower doesn't get credit for growth," said Ron Wolff, Box Elder School District Superintendent. "If kids are progressing and growing, and doing better than they did last year, we should probably give them credit for growth."

* That overall school grades don't factor in that some schools have large special-needs populations, likely to score lower on standardized tests."

"The way SB271 is structured, the school may get a grade that doesn't take into account the special needs population," said Nate Taggart, spokesman for the Weber School District. "We have special needs schools where daily miracles occur, but it's unlikely these schools will ever receive anything other than an 'F.' It doesn't measure improvements made by students who have the greatest struggle in learning."

* Timing that makes the results less meaningful.

"The state has adopted a common core, a new way to assess students," said Rich Nye, OSD assessment coordinator. "To start comparing information from one system to the next that doesn't align statistically doesn't make sense. The truth is we won't be getting new baseline data for two years."

What became SB271 was first introduced in 2011.

"It was actually passed a couple years ago," Wolff said. "Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, now (Utah Senate) Pres. Niederhauser, was the author, but there were a number of problems with the bill. So Sen. Niederhauser worked with the people at the State Office of Education for an extended period of time to improve the law that was passed.

"Then this last legislative session, he basically threw out all the work they had done, and kept the original bill. When he (Niederhauser) moved from senator to president of the senate, priorities changed. I am disappointed that after all the work people did, it really produced nothing, and not the change we anticipated."

Wolff called grading schools a political decision, and said bad political decisions usually upset people enough that laws are reevaluated.

"I think parents that have kids in school have a pretty good handle on whether they are satisfied with the schools, and that's what truly counts, providing that schools are moving along, and helping kids reach their goals," Wolff said.

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