Next Tuesday, each public school in the state, charters and traditional schools alike, will receive a letter grade, A-F. The bill that created the law, SB271 (3rd Substitute), was originally written by Parents for Choice (PCE), the same group which advocated for vouchers in 2007, seeking to use public taxpayer dollars to support for-profit schools. The bill was sponsored by Senator Stuart Adams but President Wayne Niederhauser developed the bill with PCE and asked Senator Adams to carry the bill. SB271 S3 was co-sponsored in the House by Representative Greg Hughes. No public education representatives were included in its development.
SB271 S3 passed on the final day of the 2013 Legislative Session by a narrow margin (38-36 in the House and 16-10 in the Senate). The House had only minutes to read and consider the bill. Several legislators who voted against the bill expressed their belief that it needed significant improvement.
Public education leaders asked for a Governor's veto of the bill. The governor was quick to respond
and convened a meeting with President Niederhauser to discuss the shortcomings of the bill and three specific areas by which it might be improved. In exchange for not vetoing the bill, President Niederhauser agreed to apply the data to his model and to one created earlier by the Utah State Board of Education (UCAS); then to seek the input of experts in assessment. He further agreed to convene a Special Session of the Legislature if the assessment experts suggested it was needed.
The data were modeled and the conclusion of assessment experts was that the SB271 S3 formulas did not adequately count the abilities of all children. As well, its misuse of the bell curve would automatically make it impossible for all students and their schools to reach proficiency, meaning, a certain number of schools will always fail regardless of their proficiency. The expert group recommended that UCAS (the State Board's model for school grading) be adopted by Special Session.
The governor kept his word and did not veto SB271 S3 upon the belief that problems would be remedied. President Niederhauser denied ever having said he would convene a Special Session.
On Aug, 13 and 20, after much work Governor Herbert to bring sense to this matter, President Niederhauser finally agreed to meet with public education stakeholders. After six hours of discussion pointing out the inadequacies of accountability in the grading system, President Niederhauser nonetheless saw "no compelling reason to convene a Special Session" and now is moving forward with his version of grading schools. It is a flawed program. Consider four of several concerns:
1.The School Grading program will assign an "F" to some of our finest high schools. This will be due to a requirement in the law to have at least 95% participation in the end of year testing by non-proficient students. President Niederhauser has seen this flaw but does not worry about the labeling of any school.
2.The grades are a fairly accurate representation of the wealth or poverty in a community, not a realistic portrayal of true accountability for those schools. Decades of schooling (home, state, online types) continue to indicate that poverty has a huge, negative effect on student academic achievement and is very difficult to overcome. Yet it can be done with early efforts, intense and sustained work with individual children, and continued encouragement and help from home. The Utah Legislature continues to stifle efforts to initiate early childhood education, and has eliminated funding for at-risk students in recent years. Now the grades for many schools in neighborhoods of high poverty are labeled as failures by that same Legislature.
3. The School Grading program does not sufficiently measure the hard work of helping the lowest-performing students. Many students who are well behind their peers work hard and can make substantial gains in learning, yet still not reach the proficiency bar. In the School Grading program, they may not count. Their teacher's Herculean efforts to help them make substantial gains are easily ignored in this School Grading program.
4.The School Grading program treats all schools the same whether or not they serve special populations of students. It is not surprising then to see "F" grades for schools that serve students with disabilities, schools on mental health campuses, and schools that, thankfully, recapture students who have been incarcerated and whose teachers work tirelessly to help each student recapture his/her future. These are still "F" efforts, according to the School Grading program.
Parents in Utah who serve on local school boards of education support strong accountability for our schools. They advocate for accountability systems which:
* Honor growth by concentrating attention on helping every child grow in their academic achievement and a system which values and recognizes that growth.
* Make clear to schools what is needed in order for them to improve in way that even small increments of improvement can be recognized, reinforced and rewarded.
* Are devoid of limitations which arise from reliance upon a bell-shaped curve.
* Use a system which accurately reflects the performance and growth of the school and has a common perception as to the meaning; and
* Provide assistance to schools which have created an improvement plan, and the resources to implement that plan.
We hope parents across the state will demand accountability from their legislators for an unwise School Grading program; one that does not include every child and does not reflect many variables that are important to a fair and accurate portrayal of what is occurring in Utah's remarkable schools. Please call your local legislator to register your concern.
Peggy Jo Kennett is president, Utah School Boards Association.