If local school administrators could grade state legislators for their work on a controversial education law, they probably wouldn’t give them straight “A’s.”
Overall school grades at three of Grand County’s four main schools fell or remained unchanged last year – not because overall student performance dropped, but because the Utah Legislature recalculated the state’s school-grading formula.
The Utah State Board of Education announced last week that Helen M. Knight Elementary, Moab Charter School and Grand County High School received “C” grades for the 2015-2016 school year, while Grand County Middle School received a “B.”
The state revised the grades even though the charter school and HMK made significant academic progress last year, while the high school’s overall performance improved slightly over the 2014-2015 school year.
Those discrepancies are not lost on Moab Charter School Director James Lewis, who said that parents and others should understand that the revisions don’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground at places like his school.
“You have schools that are improving, but that is not made manifest in the school grades,” he said.
Lewis provided the Moab Sun News with official documentation of the original “B” grade that the state gave the charter school earlier this month. The day after the state announced that grade, he said, he was informed via email that he should take another look at it.
He did, and he said the state had downgraded his school to a “C.”
The same thing happened to HMK, according to Principal Taryn Kay.
“We improved our score, too, by 3 percent, but we still have a ‘C,’” she said.
The state education board bases its school grades on standardized Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) test results, as well as graduation rates and ACT scores at the high school level.
State lawmakers have been revising that grading system for the last five years, and to Lewis’ surprise, the education board applied the latest changes to last year’s school results.
“Some thought that the grading scale wouldn’t kick in during the same school year,” he said.
Senate Bill 149, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law in March, requires the board to raise the range of school grade scores by 5 percent in an academic year when at least 65 percent of schools earn “A” or “B” grades.
During the last school year, 74 percent of elementary schools and 66 percent of high schools around the state initially received those higher grades, and under the new law, those percentages automatically triggered a recalculation. As a result, the number of “A” and “B” elementary schools dropped to 56 percent of elementary schools, and 43 percent of high schools.
In the charter school’s case, Lewis said that students as a whole showed academic improvement during that time, which accounted for the initial “B” grade.
“It’s actually about 8 to 10 percent higher than it was last year,” Lewis said. “A lot of our teachers and students are saying, ‘We’re making a lot of progress. How can we have a lower grade?’”
Without delving into politics, Utah State Board of Education Public Relations Director Mark Peterson said the board has no choice but to recalculate the grades, because that’s what the new law tells it to do.
“The board is not happy with this,” Peterson told the Moab Sun News. “They expressed their displeasure at the last board meeting … but the deal is what the deal is.”
According to Peterson, the 65 percent trigger actually represents a compromise that state education board members reached with Utah lawmakers. Initially, he said, the bill’s sponsors wanted to raise the grade requirements by 2 percent each year, but after negotiations, they ultimately agreed to stick with the 65 percent mark.
State lawmakers who supported the bill wanted to raise the bar for Utah’s schools, he said, and they theorized that the “real-world statistics” will show whether or not schools are improving from one year to the next.
To put a positive spin on the recalculation of “A” and “B” schools, Peterson said, it’s a sign that schools around the state are improving.
“The schools are getting better, and that’s what caused the rate recalculation,” Peterson said.
Grand County Board of Education President Beth Joseph said that her board’s members haven’t gone over the latest results in any detail, although they were set to discuss them during their meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
But Joseph said it’s important to consider other academic factors, apart from overall school grades which are based partly on standardized tests that change from year to year.
“I put a lot more stock into the different information that we get than a simple grade,” she said.
While she understands why the grading system is important to the state, Joseph said she and other local board members want to keep the focus on what the district is doing well, and what it needs to do to improve student performance.
“We try to get down to the nitty-gritty of how our kids are really doing,” she said.
Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Syndee Dickson said the most important thing that parents should consider is whether or not their own children are proficient in measured subjects, and whether they’re improving from year to year.
“If your child is proficient in English language arts, math and science, that is good news,” Dickson said. “When examining your child’s school grade, look to see if more children are becoming proficient year by year. If so, that is a good indicator that the school is moving in the right direction.”
Kay said that parents and others don’t often ask questions about state-assigned school grades.
“They just interpret them based on their background knowledge from their own experiences in school,” she said.
But she said she’s always happy to show them “a whole lot of other data” that reflect signs of students’ academic progress.
“And then they can look at it and go, ‘Oh, my student is making real growth,’” she said.
Lewis said the biggest concern he’s heard from parents and teachers alike is that they want to be recognized for the progress they made during the last school year.
“They were concerned that the students and teachers weren’t getting the credit they deserved,” he said.
Senate Bill 149’s author, Republican Sen. Ann Miller of Ogden, told the Deseret News that she expects more changes will be made next year.
“We’re trying to get it closer to right this time,” she said, according to the Deseret News.
In the meantime, the state education board plans to vote on recommendations urging lawmakers to eliminate SAGE tests for grades nine through 12, as of the 2017-2018 school year.
The proposed recommendations would also do away with SAGE writing tests for students in grades other than five and eight, while placing a 50-minute time limit on those tests. Other proposed legislative changes would add new metrics to the state’s grading system for high schools to include advanced course offerings, as well as career and technical education certificates.
Lewis said that in the past, standardized tests have taken “huge” chunks of time away from teaching. Moving forward, he’s hopeful that state lawmakers can come up with other ways to assess schools and their students, without putting an “undue burden on them.”
“Nobody wants to be in tests all day long,” he said.
Kay said she hopes that the state board’s stance against a “political mechanism” that special interest groups supported will ultimately lead to concrete action against the latest changes.
“Stand up, make a real statement and change the system,” she said.
School administrators say mandated recalculation of 2015/16 year doesn’t reflect students’ academic progress
A lot of our teachers and students are saying, ‘We’re making a lot of progress. How can we have a lower grade?’