On September 3, the Utah State Office of Education released the results of Senate Bill 271 which required that a letter grade be issued to every school in Utah. The issue of letter grades has been controversial since it was first discussed two years ago. Under the bill, letter grades seek to reflect data that is reported on a bell curve, meaning that at least half of the schools must score below average and half above average regardless of the proficiency levels demonstrated by Utah students.
Emery County School District Superintendent Kirk Sitterud explained that the bell curve model of grading students was discontinued decades ago because it did not accurately report a student’s proficiency level. Sitterud also explained that SB 271 letter grades do not include data on the growth and proficiency of all students and it does not account for students that, even though they are still not at grade level, made tremendous growth during the school year.
“Letter grades do not reflect the many indicators of school success,” Sitterud stated. “It is only a small snapshot of student achievement, and it does not give schools any data from which to plan for improvement. That information is provided through student assessment data which is at the center of the school improvement efforts of every school in the district. Letter grades are also based on assessments that are not matched yet to the new Utah Core Curriculum.”
Carbon County School District Superintendent Steve Carlsen agrees. “Our biggest fear is that improvement will not be noted until 2015,” Carlsen stated. “Last spring, students took the CRT (Criterion Referenced Tests) for the final time. This spring, the SAGE (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) test will be administered. It will be hard to measure growth with a new testing system. Results will not be apparent until 2015.”
Also, recent grades do not take into account the challenges faced by rural schools and their limited resources. “Rural schools often struggle to offer higher level courses and expose students to a broader curriculum that is available to more suburban and urban schools,” Sittered acknowledged. “The grades were also impacted by taking a snapshot measure at a time of changing assessments and a new core curriculum.”
Area school districts gathered during a weeklong workshop over the summer to discuss the implementation of the new core curriculum. According to superintendent Carlsen, teachers from Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties attended the workshop in hopes of improving education in rural areas. “Math grades are hurting in the secondary schools,” Carlsen explained. “In the elementary schools, math grades are sufficient. We are working with teachers at both levels and coordinating math education. Hopefully, scores will go up.”
The grading system fails to take into consideration the impacts of poverty, as well as factors such as ELL (none to limited English language skill) populations. “Demographics plays a huge role in this grading system,” explained the Carbon County superintendent. “No lower income schools in the state scored an A or B and our local schools are lower than most of the state poverty wise. This collates with the grades handed out.”
Even with all of the factors being considered, Emery and Carbon schools did reasonably well. All but one of Emery County’s schools performed at average or above. The following grades were issued: Emery High – B, Green River High School – C, San Rafael Jr. High School – C, Canyon View Jr. High School – B, Book Cliff Elementary – D, Huntington Elementary School – B, Ferron Elementary School – A, Cottonwood Elementary School – B, Cleveland Elementary School – C and Castle Dale Elementary School – C.
“All Emery schools work hard at insuring the success of all students,” Sitterud explained. “Book Cliff Elementary faces challenges that most schools do not encounter. It has 34% of its students that are non or limited English language speakers, a 57% minority rate and a nearly 80% poverty rate. The school also has a small enrollment, which makes each student’s value higher in impact. The district feels good about their efforts and the great staff that values the education of all students.”
Grades for Carbon County schools are as follows: Carbon High – C, Lighthouse High School – C, Helper Junior High School – C, Mont Harmon Junior High – C, Bruin Point Elementary – B, Wellington Elementary – B, Sally Mauro Elementary – B, Castle Heights Elementary – C, Creekview Elementary – C and Pinnacle Canyon Academy – C.
“All things considered, we are happy with the results,” Carlsen stated. “Our teachers are doing a wonderful job and we are pleased with them.” Each individual school in the Carbon district will now look ahead and strive toward excellence by implementing a professional learning community. Simply put, all district educators will work together to improve the overall success of its students.
In Emery County, the schools will be encouraged to look at their own individual improvement plans and make any necessary adjustments to reflect the areas that need attention. “Emery County School District will continually work to make sure that students have the best education possible without becoming distracted by reports that do not reflect all of the important measures of school success,” Sitterud concluded.
“Our grades are good. However, we don’t want to have good keep us away from great. We will continue to work towards improvement,” concluded Carlsen.
Below is information about the school grading system that was prepared by the Utah School Boards and Superintendents Association and may address historical background as well as additional concerns with letter grading of schools:
19 Facts about the School Grading Program in Utah
Based on SB271 S3 as Passed in the 2013 Session
Compiled by Dr. Patti Harrington for USBA/USSA/UASBO
- SB271 (3rd Substitute) was originally written by Parents for Choice (PCE), the same group that advocated for vouchers in 2007, seeking to use public taxpayer dollars to support for-profit schools. The bill was sponsored by Senator Stuart Adams but President Wayne Niederhauser developed the bill with PCE and asked Senator Adams to carry the bill. SB271 S3 was co-sponsored in the House by Representative Greg Hughes. No public education representatives were included in its development.
- SB271 S3 passed on the final day of the 2013 Legislative Session by a narrow margin (38-36 in the House and 16-10 in the Senate).
- This legislation adds yet another school accountability system on top of the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS) that was created in response to 2011 legislation and for use in federal accountability and is also in addition to the required annual school improvement plans developed at the local level by school community councils.
- The primary political purposes of the bill are touted by Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida. At the time of Florida’s school grading implementation, Utah outperformed Florida in almost every indicator. Utah still outperforms Florida in many indicators. There is no research that connects school grading with school improvement; it remains much more of a political ideology than a research-based practice.
- UCAS requires measuring both student proficiency and individual growth scores by all students; SB271 S3 only counts proficiency for all students, thus failing to measure improvement made by students who have the greatest struggles in learning.
- The factors in SB271 S3 make it highly unlikely that any high school can change the initial grade they receive and fail to offer any meaningful measures of student or school improvement.
- The forced stratification of grades around a mid-point in SB271S3 limits the ability of a school to demonstrate improvement and may actually lower some grades as proficiency rates increase.
- Many public education stakeholders actively opposed SB271 S3 and encouraged Governor Herbert to veto it. The bill was not vetoed in exchange for making some amendments to the bill in a Special Session of the Legislature; President Niederhauser refused to support the call for a Special Session.
- The first SB271 S3 grades are set to be released on Sept. 3, 2013.
- The School Grading Program will assign failing grades based on participation in end of year tests regardless of unique circumstances at the school level.
- The School Grading Program does not allow counting the growth of students who still may be sub-proficient but have made tremendous learning gains.
- The School Grading Program treats all schools the same; schools that serve students with disabilities, students in mental health settings, and students in alternative schools will all be graded with the same one-size-fits-all metric. It is likely that schools serving special populations will receive failing grades.
- The School Grading Program appears to be roughly aligned with economic factors in a community, giving higher grades to schools located in wealthy areas and lower grades to schools located in areas of high poverty.
- The School Grading Program will label schools in inaccurate and simplistic ways; not accounting for the myriad of school factors that should be included in a sensible accountability system that reflects complexity and growth aspects of schools and students.
- There is no current plan from the Legislature to help schools who receive poor grades; in fact, the Utah Legislature significantly decreased funding for at-risk and accelerated students the past few years.
- The per-pupil legislative allocation in Utah for FY14 is $2,899, up $57 from FY13. Utah continues to be ranked 51st in the nation in public education per pupil spending.
- Ninety-two percent (92%) of parents choose to send their students to Utah’s public traditional schools, including their online and special purpose options; the remaining students attend charter schools.
- A recent poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup Poll measured the public’s attitudes toward the public schools. Seventy-seven (77%) of America’s parents gave the school their oldest child attended a grade of A or B. These are the highest grades parents have assigned to their oldest child’s school since the poll began 44 years ago. Twenty years ago the number was 64 percent (64%). Locally-elected school board members listen carefully to their parents and work to continue to improve their local schools and the achievement of every child.
- Local boards of education support school accountability that:
- Honors growth by concentrating attention on helping every child grow in their academic achievement and a system which values and recognizes that growth.
- Makes clear to schools what is needed in order for them to improve in way that even small increments of improvement can be recognized, reinforced and rewarded.
- Is devoid of limitations which arise from reliance upon a bell-shaped curve.
- Uses a system which accurately reflects the performance and growth of the school and has a common perception as to the meaning.
- Provides assistance to schools which have created an improvement plan, and the resources to implement that plan.