Joe Heywood

The new Utah Grading Schools system was released by the state of Utah earlier this month. The grades are based on the End-of-Year standardized tests taken by all students in Grades 3-12 in the state of Utah each year.

At Moab Charter School our third through sixth grade students take computerized multiple-choice tests in Language Arts and Mathematics. Students in grades fourth through sixth also take a state Science test.

We are typically at or above state averages. Because our testing sample is so small each year, our scores can vary widely. If only eight students take a test, one low score can significantly affect the class average, and one or two very high scores can swing it up significantly as well.

This past May, our largest testing sample size ever occurred with 19 students taking the tests in third grade. Typically, only eight or nine students have taken the test in each grade. As Moab Charter School grows, our testing sample sizes at each grade will grow, and test scores will likely stabilize without too much fluctuation year to year in scores.

I have strong opinions on the system due to the fact that my doctoral dissertation focused on the effects of standardized, high-stakes testing on kids, the curriculum, and teaching.

I am one of the few people who has read every available research study from the past 40 years on testing effects. It was a four-year process, and a summary is located in my published dissertation on file with Utah State University. My strongest opinion regarding this new Utah Grading System is the damning effect it has on children who attend schools that receive poor letter grades.

For example, Tse’ Bii’ Nidzisgai School in the San Juan School District received an F grade. I spent three years working on the Navajo Nation in their schools. Native American children face tremendous odds as they take those exams. The teachers and students in those schools are working extremely hard, but it is a difficult transition for many of those kids who are English Language Learners coming out of homes where English is a relatively new language historically speaking. The other schools in Utah receiving D and F grades are typically in high poverty or high immigrant population areas where the kids struggle with standardized learning and testing.

I can’t imagine trying to explain to those precious kids why they are being publicly called F students at an F school by the state of Utah. It is a travesty, in my opinion, for the Utah state legislators to publicly label hundreds of Native American kids and thousands of kids living in poverty in Utah as D or F students attending D or F schools. There are far more positive approaches to school evaluation that involve more than simple standardized test scores and help struggling schools to get better without publicly humiliating the children.

At Moab Charter School, we are lucky to have a tremendous staff of highly qualified professional teachers who do an amazing job. We don’t place much emphasis on test scores within the staff because I don’t want to see the effects of focusing too much on a single multiple choice test in our school.

You just cannot reduce nine months and between 180-360 hours of instruction in each of the three tested subjects down to a 40-60 question multiple choice test. Once a school starts trying to “Teach to the test”, a tremendous narrowing of the curriculum follows, and the educational experience of our kids is cheapened.

There are tens of thousands of pages of books and research papers supporting these views, but they are typically ignored because test scores are easy to track, easy to graph, and easy to “make people accountable to.”

Yet, they are not a valid instrument for measuring the lived experience of a child over a nine month school year.

Our overall score is above the state average, as is Helen M. Knight Elementary. I am pleased with our grade for one reason: I am glad that none of our kids were subjected to the public humiliation of a D or F grade. I believe our kids are special. I believe the kids at Tse’ Bii’ Nidzisgai School are special. I don’t believe any child in Utah should be publicly humiliated. There are far better approaches to evaluating and improving schools.