School grades do not reflect reality


Legislatively mandated school grades miss the mark in school accountability

(Updated Sept. 3, 2013)
The State of Utah released individual school letter grades on Sept. 3 that most in the education community believe are based on faulty assumptions and do not properly present what’s happening in the state’s public schools.

“Our teachers, students and parents deserve a school accountability system that truly reflects all the good things going on in our schools and identifies areas where they can improve,” said UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. “If legislators were trying to help the public better understand the quality and performance of our public schools, they clearly missed the mark with this legislation.”

Despite the objections of many in the education community, the 2013 Legislature passed SB271 (3rd Sub.): School Grading Amendments by a narrow margin (38-36 in the House and 16-10 in the Senate). This legislation created a second, separate accountability grading system that reduces all school performance to a single letter grade.

Many public education stakeholders, including the UEA, PTA, Utah School Boards Association (USBA) and Utah School Superintendents Association (USSA), opposed SB271 and asked Governor Herbert to veto it.

Flaws in the law include inadequate measurement of student achievement growth, inappropriate labeling of schools based on student test participation and concerns about the way secondary schools are graded, according to UEA Director of Education Excellence Sara Jones who has been the UEA’s point person on this effort. In addition, the state’s transition to computer adaptive testing in 2014-15 will make year-to-year comparison of grades irrelevant. This combined with reporting a second, separate school performance model will result in confusion for parents, communities and schools, she said.

Prior school grading legislation passed in 2011, required measuring both student proficiency and growth in assigning schools a letter grade, but also allowed the Utah State Board of Education flexibility to develop a more comprehensive model. The result was the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS) that was implemented in 2012 and is used for federal NCLB reporting as well as school performance reporting. “UCAS is certainly not the gold standard in school accountability, but it is clearly superior to the single grade and questionable methodology required under SB271,” said Jones.

For eighteen months after the passage of the first school grading law, the UEA, PTA, USBA, USSA and the bill sponsor, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, worked together to create UCAS. The Senate sponsor put this work on hold two sessions ago and opened the bill file on SB271 this past legislative session. Despite the many concerns raised by stakeholders, the Senate sponsor has not been willing to adopt any changes to SB271, according to Jones.

“A comprehensive school accountability model should be collaboratively developed by education experts and stakeholders,” said Gallagher-Fishbaugh. “The new grading model ignores collaborative work done over the past two years and instead implements a system without input from key stakeholders.”

In a meeting held Aug. 20, the Utah Public Education Coalition – which includes representatives from the UEA, PTA, USBA, USSA, Utah Elementary School Principals Association and Utah Secondary School Principals Association – expressed opposition to the idea of reducing school accountability to a single grade. Coalition members unanimously passed a resolution to support and advocate for a school accountability system that:

  • Honors growth by concentrating attention on helping every child grow in their academic achievement and values and recognizes that growth;
  • Makes clear to schools what is needed to improve in ways that even small increments of improvement can be recognized, reinforced and rewarded;
  • Is devoid of limitations that arise from reliance upon a bell-shaped curve;
  • Accurately reflects the performance and growth of the school and has a common perception as to the meaning; and
  • Provides assistance to schools that have created an improvement plan and provides the resources to implement that plan.

The UEA is urging those concerned with this legislation and the impact it is having on communities, schools and classrooms to contact their state legislators and ask them to repeal all school grading laws and replace them with collaboratively developed, comprehensive school accountability.

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