Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren

Grand County High School students can expect to spend more time next year studying math, science and English, under the school’s plan to improve future standardized test scores.

The greater emphasis on the three core subjects comes after the Utah State Office of Education gave the school a failing grade, based largely on its assessment scores in those key areas.

However, Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren said that he and other school officials are not reacting solely on the basis of the state results.

“This is not just a response to the test. This is an academic response that we should be doing anyway to help our kids,” he said during a Feb. 2 meeting with parents, students and school officials.

Hren linked the outcome to a number of factors: For one thing, he noted that flawed calculation and coding rates brought the school’s measured graduation rate down from the actual level of 85 percent to 78 percent.

But he said the state’s final score – 39.1 percent of 900 points – was largely a reflection of the school’s Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) test scores from the spring of 2014.

“It was definitely in the area of proficiency on the tests that really brought us down for our grade last year,” Hren said.

In light of those results, Hren said that students are now working on argumentative and explanatory essay writing projects in their social studies and science classes.

“They’ve been doing some of the writing in their classes already,” he said.

Teachers are also helping students prepare for the kinds of questions that appear on certain tests, and they’re familiarizing them with the exam formats they can expect to see in the future.

In one of the biggest changes, school officials are reviewing proposed master schedule revisions that would clear the way for full-year math, science and English classes for students in grades nine through 11.

School officials are also working to improve the school’s graduation rate, he said, and they will continue to develop a school-wide behavior plan.

Parent Joe Day told Hren that he wants to see more community involvement in the school, as well as its planned approach to improve students’ test scores.

Day and his family came to Moab from a rural Washington state school district that runs a semester-based system with seven periods a day, and he believes that school district must be doing something right: According to Day, it scored 18th in Washington state.

In contrast, Day said he believes that Grand County High School suffers from lack of preparation and an under-emphasis on testing.

Hren agreed that the school must encourage its students – and their parents – to take the tests seriously.

It might come as a surprise to some people, but under the law, parents can allow their children to opt out of the tests.

Although some parents chose to do so last year, state education officials did not hold that against the district when they issued the high school’s final grade. However, Hren said the school will lose federal funding for its career and technical education programs as a consequence, since its student test participation rate fell below 95 percent.

Grand County School District Superintendent Scott Crane said the funding cuts will extend to Helen M. Knight Elementary, as well. But the loss of funding is ultimately just one of several negative consequences he sees: Students and the school district as a whole may suffer without representative test results.

“They’re not getting the input from that; they’re not understanding if they’re ready for college … and we don’t get the information on them to be able to do a better job, and so it’s really not an accurate picture of our students,” Crane said.

To find out what happened last year, Hren spoke in recent weeks with about 70 students on an individual basis.

Before he did so, he pulled the school’s activity rosters and looked at students’ cumulative grade point averages, as well as their core test scores. It was “pretty apparent,” he said, that some students who have done very well in the past did not do so well on last spring’s tests.

According to Hren, a number of students subsequently told him that they were not prepared for the content or the change in tests.

It turns out that the high school was one of the first schools in Utah to take the new tests, and at that early stage, Hren said that state education officials were not quite sure what they would use the test data for.

“And so, a lot of our teachers felt it was going to be baseline information; they told that to the students,” he said. “Obviously, if teachers tell a student that this is just going to be baseline information, the test may not (seem) that important.”

As a result, he said, he has the sense that some students did not try quite as hard as they could have.

“I’m not saying it’s the students’ fault. It’s based on what the teachers were telling them – they’re going to do what the teachers are saying,” he said.

One student who did not identify herself said that many teachers informed students that they would be acting as “guinea pigs” by taking the tests.

“A lot of kids were not prepared for it, so they opted out, because that was a better option than putting yourself in a situation where you’re testing on something you have not learned at that point,” she said.

Hren said he was not aware that some teachers may have influenced their students’ attitudes toward the test.

“I did not tell them to do that,” he said.

As the school’s top administrator, he doesn’t believe that any good came out of those disclosures.

“It was not a benefit. It was a detriment,” he said.

If the students he queried knew then what they know now, Hren said they would be in a better position to take the tests.

“They were all saying, ‘We’re going to try the best we can, because we understand what it means this year, for sure,’” he said.

Proposal comes after state gave school a failing grade

This is not just a response to the test. This is an academic response that we should be doing anyway to help our kids.