Helen M. Knight Elementary School Principal Taryn Kay discussed the Utah State Board of Education’s latest letter grades of local schools on Tuesday, Sept. 26. Kay, who also serves as the Grand County School District’s testing coordinator, said she believes that the grades and SAGE test results present a warped image of student achievement within the district. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

School grades are – in the words of Helen M. Knight Elementary Principal Taryn Kay – “inflammatory.” And the latest grades for the 2016-2017 school year are unlikely to quell the controversy among local educators and school administrators surrounding the state’s grading system.

The Utah State Board of Education gave Grand County Middle School a “B” for its performance during the last school year, while Helen M. Knight Elementary and Moab Charter School received “C” grades, and Grand County High School received a “D.”

At the Grand County School District level, the state education board reported that 44 percent of students were proficient in the area of language arts, while 35 percent were deemed proficient in math and 42 percent were proficient in science. Forty percent of Moab Charter School students were found to be proficient in language arts, while 30 percent were proficient in math and 48 percent were proficient in science, the state board reported.

Grand County Middle School received the “B” grade for the fourth year in a row, and GCMS Principal Melinda Snow said it reflects the strong collaboration between faculty members and the community.

“It shows a powerful commitment to knowing and meeting the needs of our students,” Snow said. “It shows too, that the middle school team continues to work well together even through the roughest of times. As students and staff have commented, ‘We are pretty proud of us!’”

Kay, who also serves as the Grand County School District’s testing coordinator, cautioned that the results beyond the middle school don’t necessarily mirror student progress within the district. If anything, Kay said, they present a warped image of student achievement.

“It’s more of a funhouse mirror,” she told the Moab Sun News.

Utah lawmakers require the state board to base its letter grades on standardized Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) test scores in language arts, math and science, as well as graduation rates and ACT scores at the high school level.

At Helen M. Knight Elementary, Kay said that teachers and school officials drill down into the numbers to “get to the meat of” the SAGE scores and find out how they can improve their instruction.

“But SAGE is a real downer,” she said.

The review process, she said, can be tricky because teachers never actually see the questions that appear on SAGE tests – either before or after their students take them. Without a clearer idea of how they can prepare their students for the questions on the tests, Kay said it’s difficult for teachers to improve their instruction in a meaningful way.

Years ago, when schools administered entirely different tests, Grand County High School Principal Dr. Stephen Hren noted that teachers would grade them and give them raw scores. But today, teachers are expressly prohibited from doing so, he said.

“We can’t do anything like that,” Hren said. “We can’t tie it to their grade.”

Like Kay, Hren does not believe that the latest SAGE results reflect the quality of instruction at the high school, and he noted that news of the state’s letter grades can have a demoralizing effect on educators.

“Right now, the teaching staff is the best group holistically in the 30 years I’ve been here,” Hren said. “To have to go into a faculty meeting last week, and to tell them that we’re a ‘D’ school – they just deflate.”

County education board to review grades

Grand County Board of Education President Melissa Byrd said that she and other board members are aware of the grades. But she declined to comment on the state board’s announcement, telling the Moab Sun News that she is waiting until school administrators have a chance to give their reports on the grades at the board’s next meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 18.

“I want to give them the opportunity to present that to us at our board meeting in October so we can fully understand the details,” Byrd said.

Kay is keenly aware that parents, guardians and others who casually glance at newspaper headlines may draw their own conclusions about student progress at the schools, based on the letter grades that each one received from the state.

“Everybody was in school; everybody knows what a ‘C’ is, and a ‘B’ and an ‘A,’ and they have their opinions,” she said.

But as for Kay herself, she said she doesn’t put much stock in the letter grades that lean so heavily on the SAGE test results.

“We have other data that show we’re doing much better than the SAGE scores show,” she said.

At the elementary school level, for instance, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test results show that 74 percent of HMK students – and 73 percent of Moab Charter School students – were reading at or above their grade levels. That compares to respective SAGE language arts scores of 44 percent for HMK and 40 percent for the charter school.

For her part, Kay believes the DIBELS results are more representative of student achievement because they are administered nationwide, whereas SAGE is a state-based test.

“We believe it’s a much more accurate representation of student achievement than SAGE,” she said.

Looking at the high school level, Kay and Hren said that SAGE test scores are increasingly obsolete.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Grand County High School was able to count all of its 11th grade SAGE test scores. But Kay noted that the state now gives high schools the option not to administer the SAGE tests to their 11th and 12th grade students, and last year, Grand County High School’s move away from the tests was especially pronounced.

Hren said that more and more students – including the high-achieving ones – are opting out of the SAGE tests that have limited sway beyond the court of public opinion. Many of those same students, however, are concerned about their SAT and ACT scores, as well as their grade point averages – the kinds of data that colleges and universities actually consider when they’re reviewing students’ applications or resumes.

“(Students) don’t take (SAGE) seriously because it’s not going to impact them,” Hren said.

With fewer and fewer juniors and seniors taking the tests, Hren said the high school’s overall SAGE scores for the 2016-2017 year were based largely on ninth- and 10th-grade results in language arts, math and science.

While there was progress at the 10th-grade level, Hren said, it was not enough to offset a drop in ninth-grade scores across the board, leading to overall proficiency scores of 41 percent in language arts, 30 percent in math and 42 percent in science.

There was significant progress among high school students who took the SAGE chemistry and physics tests, Hren said: Eighty percent of the students who took the chemistry test were deemed to be proficient or higher, compared to a state average of 49 percent, while 63 percent of those who took the physics test were proficient, versus a state average of 43 percent.

However, Hren said those scores weren’t counted because fewer than 10 students apiece took each test.

“If they would have been included, I guarantee you we wouldn’t have had a ‘D,’” he said.

Hren also found encouraging news in the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) testing results: Twenty-eight seniors took the AP English Literature and Composition test, and 71 percent of them received passing grades, compared to a nationwide score of 56 percent. Likewise, 80 percent of the Grand County High School students who took the AP exam in calculus passed – a significantly higher percentage than the 57 percent national average.

Once again, however, the state education board doesn’t consider those scores when it’s preparing to grade a school.

“There’s far more going on than that letter grade indicates,” Hren said.

Kay said that students at HMK do much better on periodic tests that their teachers administer at various times throughout the school year.

“Part of it is their familiarity with the format,” she said.

Officials hope for changes in grading system

State lawmakers have changed the school grading system every year since it was adopted in 2011, and further revisions are in store next year.

At this point, the legislature must decide whether school letter grades will be assessed for the current school year. As lawmakers consider additional changes, Hren is hopeful that they will take students’ performance in Advanced Placement (AP) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses into account.

“There’s been enough of an outcry from various schools and entities that this (current system) is not really an accurate way to be grading a school, necessarily,” he said.

Kay said she’d like to see the state adopt a national norm that provides schools accurate assessment data.

“We will continue to do what the state requires, but right now, SAGE is instructionally useless,” she said.

For now, if parents and guardians have any questions about their students’ or school’s performance, Kay encourages them to drop by HMK.

“We’re here to serve the public, so come talk to us,” she said.

Hren, likewise, invites anyone who wants to learn more about student achievement to pay a visit to his school.

“I would definitely encourage anybody to come and check it out for themselves,” he said.

Scores range from “B” for middle school to “D” for high school