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Utah's public schools got further away from a straight-A report card this year.

New school grades were released Thursday, showing a sharp uptick in the number of failing schools and a corresponding drop at the A and B grade level.

But the shift is largely attributable to school success, because flat or improved test scores statewide triggered a new clause in the school grade law that makes the grading scale more difficult when too many schools earn either an A grade or B grade.

The result is 45 fewer schools earning an A grade than last year and 13 fewer schools earning a B, while the number of D and F grades is up 24 schools and 30 schools, respectively.

The Utah Board of Education described the decline as a "technicality." In a prepared statement, state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said the most important thing for parents should be whether or not scores for their own children are improving.

"If your child is proficient in English language arts, math and science, that is good news," she 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."

School grades for individual schools and school districts can be found at the Utah Board of Education website. Points for school grades are awarded based on year-end SAGE tests, high school graduation rates and ACT scores.

Utah's school grading law has been amended each year since its adoption in 2011, with the most recent amendments sponsored by Ogden Republican Sen. Ann Millner.

Millner said increasing the scoring criteria is intended to incrementally align school grades with traditional grading benchmarks: 90 percent for an A, 80 percent for a B and so forth.

"Do it in a way that recognizes the progress that our schools are making now and doesn't just have them all failing," she said.

But the moving target meant that schools last week received preliminary grades, which showed improvement that reflected their increased test scores, before the grades were downgraded as a result of widespread success.

In its announcement of school grades, Davis School District described the shift in grades as "masking" the performance gains of public schools.

"Many educators, parents, and other stakeholders question whether a single letter grade can adequately represent school quality," the district announcement said. "Such questions are magnified when arbitrary changes to grading thresholds make year-to-year achievement comparisons impossible."

Driggs Elementary School in Holladay was among the 80 schools that retained its A grade after the scoring change.

But Principal Mike Douglas said it's hard for his colleagues at other schools to see a good grade one day and a bad grade the next. "It's unfortunate that they told the principals the grades and then they moved the goalposts," he said.

He said he likes that schools are expected to be accountable to the public, but feels Utah's school grading program doesn't assign enough points to schools that lift the performance of at-risk students.

"I have colleagues that might show more growth in their school year than Driggs [Elementary], but it's not weighted enough," he said. "It's easy to be happy with the program when you're getting an A. But for those schools that are working hard and not making the grade, it's harder."

Millner said there is some disagreement on whether the shift should be applied to a current year's grades — as they were in 2016 — or used to set new targets for the coming year.

"I think that is only one piece of what [lawmakers] will be talking about," she said.

Additional changes could be on the way for school grading. The state school board recently voted to substitute SAGE testing in high school for the ACT test, a move that requires legislative action on various education statutes.

The board also recommendations that student participation in programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccaleureate, concurrent enrollment and honors courses be included in school grading calculations.

Millner said the Legislature's recent vote to allow ACT as an optional substitute to SAGE for high school juniors suggests there may be an appetite to broaden the grading criteria.

"I think students tend to take the ACT test seriously and that's part of what you want to happen in your assessment and accountability process," she said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesman Jon Cox said the governor is open to additional updates to school grading.

"Gov. Herbert​​ will​​ work closely with [Senate President Wayne] ​Niederhauser and​​ Utah's​ ​education leaders​ on​ a policy that​ ultimately​​ meets the needs of students, parents, and individual schools," he said.

Statewide, 80 schools received an A grade, 406 received a B grade, 294 received a C grade, 75 received a D grade and 43 received an F.

At the high school level, Utah's early college charter schools claimed five out of six A grades, with Cache County's Mountain Crest High the only traditional school earning a top score.

In a prepared statement, InTech Collegiate High School Principal Jason Stanger praised the efforts of his staff in earning the school's fourth consecutive A grade.

"We are enthusiastic about using our focused mission and small school size to continue helping a diverse student body achieve strong academic results in preparation for college and STEM careers," he said.

Twitter: @bjaminwood

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