This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
"Next contestant, Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject the bleeding obvious."
Basil Fawlty, "Fawlty Towers"
Yes, it is time to retire the overly simplistic and counterproductive system of assigning a single letter grade to the performance of each Utah public school. A House committee the other day approved a bill that would do exactly that and direct the State Board of Education to create a more useful set of evaluations.
On its way out, though, give the school grading system a nod for having demonstrated the firm correlation of the ratings earned by schools and the socioeconomic standing of the neighborhoods they serve.
Not that nearly all educators, and most thinking people, wouldn't have predicted that.
As was pointed out by Rep. Marie Poulson, the Cottonwood Heights Democrat sponsoring House Bill 241, the attempt to boil an entire school's performance down to a single letter grade actually accomplished little more than putting a red check mark next to the names of schools in neighborhoods with high percentages of what the schools call "economically disadvantaged" students, ethnic minorities and students who are trying to learn English at the same time they are trying to learn everything else.
Add to that the fact that the Legislature kept changing the criteria for assigning grades, making it harder and harder for any school to earn, or keep, a high grade, and the general result was smugness in the well-performing schools and frustration, leading to resignation, in the lower-rated ones.
It should already have been obvious that schools in low-income neighborhoods have a more difficult job, and that any attempt to rate their progress should come with a significant handicapping factor. Like giving an Olympic diver more points for a dive with a higher "degree of difficulty."
HB241 directs the state board to come up with a more detailed set of evaluations for each school, one that will have to be read and considered rather than just glanced at. It would continue to tabulate such things as test scores and graduation rates, but will also detail such factors as the number of advanced placement courses taken. And it would measure the resources available to students, levels of parental and community support and highlight the burdens of any school "that serves a special student population," i.e. poor folks.
There is already some recognition that schools in low-income neighborhoods have a steeper mountain to climb. That's the idea behind another bill, Rep. Mike Winder's attempt to sweeten pay levels for accomplished teachers who agree to work in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The amount of money contemplated in Winder's bill $5,000 per year per teacher seems a drop in the bucket. But the realization behind it is a good sign.
So the Legislature should approve HB241, create a more sophisticated way of evaluating school performance, and stop pretending that a single grade given to most schools will measure anything other than the wealth of the neighborhood where the school happens to sit.