Opponents of letter grades for public schools fear privatization; supporters hail new transparency.
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Parents should care deeply about Utah's new school grading system, educators say, but not because it shows which schools are excelling and which schools are failing.
Rather, it is proof that a decades-old movement to privatize America's public schools is making serious headway in Utah, said school board leaders, superintendents and teachers at a press conference Tuesday.
"Your average parent doesn't know what's going on," said Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. "And if we don't wake up the citizens of this state, it's going to be too late."
But state lawmakers say the letter grades, A through F, assigned Tuesday to traditional and charter schools will force educators to pay attention to inequities that have been ignored for too long.
"This is a very significant day in education in this state. Parents can, for the first time, clearly see problem areas and demand improvement," said Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.
Eleven percent of Utah's 855 public schools earned an A, 45 percent a B, 30 percent a C, 10 percent a D and 4 percent an F.
Utah's grading system is modeled after a program launched in Florida in 1999 by then newly-elected Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The bill to adopt the program here, SB271, was pushed by Utah Parents for Choice in Education (UPCE), which supports vouchers.
Gallagher-Fishbaugh is worried Utah will adopt something similar to a trigger law considered by at least 25 other states, she said. Under a trigger law, parents with enough signatures could demand that a failing school be overhauled, closed, converted to a charter school or request vouchers to help pay tuition at a private school.
One of the members of UPCE's advisory board works for California-based Parent Revolution, the driving force behind the parent trigger campaign.
UPCE Executive Director Judi Clark denies that her group has "made any move toward a parent trigger law," but she didn't rule out the possibility.
"The grading system is about empowering parents and citizens with information," she said. "Anyone who says differently is trying to avoid accountability."
None of the state's schools with the largest concentrations of low income students received an A grade, and those schools had the highest percentage of F grades. Among schools with the fewest low income students, no elementary schools received Fs.
"Parents in more affluent schools know how to access power, and they have time to be the squeaky wheels. They aren't going to tolerate teachers that aren't doing well," said Urquhart. "So where do those low performing teachers go? They're shuffled to schools where parents don't protest."
Urquhart, the architect of a failed 2007 voucher law, said rumors of privatization are "absolute nonsense."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he sponsored Utah's school grading bill to bring "clarity and focus" to lower-performing students. Florida's student "demographics are different than ours," he said. "But we have a lot of children in our minority population that are not graduating."
There are no specific consequences of Utah's grades no financial rewards or penalties except the boost or blow to school reputations.
Education officials counter schools are already held to numerous and evolving state and federal standards. If accountability was the goal, then the grading system misses the mark, they say.
"It demoralizes teachers and is not an accurate picture of most of our schools," said Peggy Jo Kennett, president of the Utah School Boards Association and a member of the Jordan School District board.
The grades are calculated on a bell curve, which means most schools fall somewhere in the middle. It also means there will always be some schools that fail, those at the bottom of the curve.
Not all students' scores count toward a school's grade. Students taking Advanced Placement courses for college credit, for example, don't take the Criterion-Referenced language arts, science and math tests (CRTs) upon which the grades were based. Students with growth scores below the 40th percentile, when compared to their academic peers, also don't count. The Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, designed by the State Office of Education, gives points for partial growth. Its scores will be released later this month.
And unlike local school council-driven improvement plans, which are also based on CRT scores, the grading system doesn't come with funding to aid struggling learners.
"At an A school, if you're in a small, neglected group of learners, who is going to pay attention to you?" said Salt Lake City Superintendent McKell Withers, president of the Utah School Superintendents Association.
Withers points to his district's Ensign and Backman Elementary schools as examples of the disconnect between the grades and actual performance.
Ensign received an A, but made no progress last year toward its improvement goals in language arts or math, Withers said. Backman received an F but exceeded its goals by five percentage points, he said.
"Rather than creating a standard and saying we want all schools to reach this standard, they've created a grading system where there will always be failing schools," said Withers. "Why would you do that? Because you have to have enough failing schools to push the argument for privatization."
Tribune reporter Ray Parker contributed to this report
Utah already had the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS, in place.
Designed by the State Office of Education, it's been approved by federal officials under a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements.
Later this month, the state office will release UCAS results for 2013. UCAS is based on the same data scores on Criterion-Referenced Tests (CRT) and graduation rates plus writing assessments for some grades.
Among the differences:
• UCAS ranks schools into percentiles rather than giving them grades.
• One-third of UCAS growth points are based lower-performing students; the grading system bases half of its growth points on them.
• UCAS gives schools some points for even partial amounts of student academic growth. The grading system sets a minimum bar: schools get no points for students with growth scores that fall below the 40th percentile, when their growth is compared to their academic peers.
Find your school's grade
Go here to search for your school's report card, which shows its scores and grade.
Parents can get more involved by working with their School Community Council (SCC). State lawmakers are requiring each school this year to list its SCC agendas and meetings on school websites before Nov. 16. Councils use School LAND Trust Program funds to help improve student academics.
See our other coverage
Utah assigns grades to all schools – how did yours do?
D and F grades for Salt Lake City's high schools
Mixed grades for Wasatch Front high schools
By the numbers
How grades stacked up
Elementary, middle and junior high schools
This statewide tally includes traditional and charter schools
A: 86 schools, 12 percent
B: 325 schools, 46 percent
C: 212 schools, 30 percent
D: 74 schools, 10 percent
F: 15 schools, 2 percent
High schools statewide
This statewide tally includes traditional and charter schools
A: 7 schools, 5 percent
B: 60 schools, 41 percent
C: 45 schools, 32 percent
D: 15 schools, 10 percent
F: 16 schools, 12 percent
Traditional vs charter high schools
A: Traditional 3, Charter 4
B: Traditional 54, Charter 6
C: Traditional 35, Charter 10
D: Traditional 13, Charter 2
F: Traditional 14, Charter 2
Total 119 Total 24