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Utah releases public school ratings under new system

Published December 1, 2012 11:08 am

Ratings • Educators meet the system that is replacing the much-maligned NCLB with guarded optimism.
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Parents and teachers who despised the labels No Child Left Behind imposed on Utah schools can rejoice that they're no more.

But that doesn't mean Utah schools are off the hook. They're now answering to a new rating system.

For the first time, state education leaders on Friday released the results of that new system for all Utah public schools. Under the new system of accountability, each school in the state has been given a number, up to a highest possible score of 600.

Schools were scored based on students' achievement on state tests in English-language arts, math and science, and schools' progress in improving those scores. High schools were also judged based on their graduation rates.

This first year, Utah elementary and junior high schools earned an average score of 435, and high schools 398.

Results for districts were mixed.

Fewer than one-third of Alpine District schools scored below the averages, while roughly half of schools in the Canyons, Davis, Jordan and Salt Lake City districts scored below average. Nearly two-thirds of Granite schools scored below state averages.

Individual school reports and scores are online at www.schools.utah.gov under the Public School Data Gateway and "UCAS Report." Reports for individual students, which will be given to districts next week, will show how much progress kids are making in English/language arts, math and science as compared to their peers.

After nearly a decade of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it's a system that could take some getting used to. But state education leaders say it's superior to the old one chiefly because it takes students' progress into account in a big way — a change from NCLB.

"It gives students a fair chance to be recognized for growth," said John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability at the State Office of Education.

Also, NCLB expected 100 percent of kids to be proficient in math and reading by 2014 — a requirement many criticized as unrealistic. The new system (called Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS) does not expect that.

Utah no longer has to follow a number of requirements of NCLB after receiving a waiver to the federal law earlier this year. In exchange for that waiver, Utah created this new system.

It's a system that's drawing praise from a number of school leaders — even though Utah schools haven't escaped labels entirely.

Under the new system, Title I schools (schools that accept federal dollars for serving high percentages of kids from low-income homes) may now fall into one of three categories based on their performance: priority, focus and reward.

This year, priority schools are low-performing schools that have already accepted federal grants to help them improve. Focus schools are the lowest performing 10 percent of Title I schools in the state, not including priority schools. And reward schools are the highest achieving Title I schools in the state.

Granite's Roosevelt Elementary in Salt Lake City was one of 28 schools named among the focus schools this year.

The school scored a 244. It's a school that faces a number of challenges, said principal Jennifer Reed. About 87 percent of Roosevelt students come from low-income homes; about half move in and out during the school year; and 31 languages are spoken in its classrooms.

Reed said it's tough to be labeled as a focus school, given how hard her staff works. But she still thinks the new system is better than the old one.

"I think that the new UCAS system has great potential to truly measure the academic progress of students," Reed said. "I think it's a more fair system of comparison."

Like other focus schools, Roosevelt received $100,000 in federal money to hire a consultant to help it come up with an improvement plan and to implement that plan over the next two years. Reed said she hopes the money makes a difference.

Under NCLB, schools got $200,000 each, an amount that's been cut in half because more schools have been deemed in need of help under the new system than the old one, said Ann White, state Title I coordinator.

Central Elementary principal Vicki Carter is also pleased with the new system. Central, in Pleasant Grove, was designated as one of 48 reward schools this year after scoring 532. Reward schools get a letter of recognition from the state superintendent and a certificate.

"A lot of times in a Title I school you don't get recognized for the growth that you've made," Carter said. "This system shows you're helping the student to grow."

And Endeavour Elementary principal Beth Johnston praised the new system for not failing schools just because one group of students might not meet a certain bar.

Under NCLB, schools had to make sure students in 10 groups, divided by ethnicity, income and ability, met certain goals or the whole school would fail. The new system looks at only two groups of students: all kids in a school and those who failed to test proficient.

"If one little subgroup is not performing it doesn't counter everything you've done in every other subgroup," Johnston said.

Endeavour, in Kaysville, earned the third highest score in the state, with a rating of 584. The Granite School District's Morningside and Fox Hills elementaries' magnet programs tied to earn the highest scores in the state.

Johnston said Endeavor, which opened less than three years ago, excels because of its focus on math, technology and science; daily parental involvement; and a decision to use state trust lands money to ensure teachers can spend 25 minutes a day, four days a week, working in small groups with struggling students.

State leaders, however, acknowledge that the new system is not perfect. Some, for example, such as Chris Bleak with the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, worry that small schools' scores could fluctuate widely because it would only take a few students falling behind or excelling to significantly change a school's score. He also wonders whether the weight placed on student growth could hurt schools that are already high achieving that don't have much room for students to grow. He said the new system is a good first step.

Jesse said it's likely state leaders will tweak the system as time goes on to improve upon it.

Next year, the system will also include grades of A-F per state laws passed in recent years that aim to make accountability easier to understand.

lschencker@sltrib.comTwitter: @lschencker —

How did your school do?

To see how your school scored go to www.schools.utah.gov and click on the Public School Data Gateway and then "UCAS Report."






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