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How do parents know if their public schools are earning an A or an F when it comes to educating their kids? A new scale for grading schools was approved Friday by the State Board of Education, but board members said they hope the tool will be used to help, not punish, schools that are falling behind.

The grading scale was required by a state law passed earlier this year. Utah schools will get their first report cards in August.

Grades will be based on the portion of students who score proficient on annual state exams in language arts, math, science and writing. But equal weight will be given to growth in student learning, using a calculation commonly known as the "Colorado Growth Model." That calculation compares students with their academic peers to see if they improve from year to year at a rate that is at, above or below average.

Schools can earn points for moving students ahead even if those students do not meet testing goals. It's a way to recognize schools that may face additional challenges from high rates of poverty or non-English-speaking students.

"We want to make sure this system is equitable and fair for all of our schools," said state associate superintendent Judy Park, who has worked with a committee to develop the grading system. "We want all of our schools to be able to be A schools."

But even as the board approved the grading system, members acknowledged the Legislature could redesign it in the 2012 session. Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who sponsored the original legislation, was on the committee that developed the scale. He plans to run a bill that would update the law to reflect the new grading system, which has a more lenient scale than what was originally required. The law specified that an A was 90 to 100 percent, a B was 80 to 89 percent, and so on.

"Are we comfortable that 80 percent in high school really is an A?" asked Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, who attended Friday's board meeting. "I want an answer to give to my colleagues."

In fact, that's the scale for the achievement, or test score, portion of high school grades. The overall scale, which includes graduation rates for high schools and the growth model, shows an A at 390 points out of a possible 600 — or 65 percent. Schools would have to score below 184 points to earn an F.

"On first blush, it seems to be a terribly low standard," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, after hearing the scale described in an interview. "Are they going to also adjust grading of students to dumb it down like that as well?"

Stephenson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has announced plans to run a bill in 2012 that would dismantle public schools that earn F grades. A bid would be issued to private contractors, such as charter school operators, and parents would decide who would run their neighborhood school.

Under the grading system approved Friday, 9 percent of high schools and 1 percent of elementary and middle schools would have earned an F in 2010-11, according to data shared Friday. Nearly half of all schools earned B's. A quarter of elementary and middle schools and 17 percent of high schools earned A's. About a quarter of all schools earned C's and D's.

Mindful of Stephenson's plan, the board qualified its approval of the grading system — on an 11-4 vote — with a statement that the grades are intended to identify schools in need of additional support to improve, not single out struggling ones for punishment.

"If they're looking for a school to kick to the curb, to send out and be bought by some private agency, [then] no, I don't think this is the measurement," said board member Leslie Castle. "But if they're looking to know what is going on in schools to look to improve, then this is the measurement."

Osmond told the board he hopes the discussion at the Legislature moves toward how to help teachers help students succeed.

"It's great that we have a grading bill, but the real issue that we have to solve and fund is how do we fix [low-performing schools]?" he said.

Stephenson, in an interview, defended his plan to privatize failing schools.

"It's quite interesting that the members of the state school board who say, 'We don't want to punish schools,' are perfectly satisfied to keep punishing children by subjecting them to mediocre education," he said. "I'm less concerned about the feelings of educators who run mediocre schools than I am about the future prospects of those children in the school."

How would Utah schools be graded?

Under a plan approved Friday by the State Board of Education, schools will receive grades based on student achievement on state math, science, language arts and writing exams, coupled with student growth. High schools will also be judged on graduation rates and, in the future, ACT scores.

Out of a total of 600 points for elementary and middle schools:

A • 391 points (65 percent) or above

B • 296 (49 percent)

C • 251 (42 percent)

D • 191 (32 percent)

F • 190 and below

Out of a total of 600 points for high schools:

A • 390 points

B • 295

C • 250

D • 185

F • 184 and below