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The Salt Lake City School District's four high schools received Ds or Fs Tuesday from the state's new school grading system — with West High's F grade in particular drawing debate.

The high school is known in part for its International Baccalaureate (IB) program for students with strong academic skills. Proponents of the new grades, such as Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said they can reveal unseen problems.

"[West High] is failing a huge population of their students," Niederhauser said. "...The IB program is a beautiful paint job covering up some pretty big problems."

West High received an F grade because fewer than 95 percent of its lower-achieving students took the required statewide tests. Without that automatic grade, it would have been given a D.

Out of a total of 750 points possible, West High received 411, or 55 percent. For student proficiency on the tests, it had 163 points out of 300; for growth in students' scores over last year, it scored 140 points out of 300; and for its graduation rate of 72 percent it had 108 points out of 150.

East High School received 410 points total (55 percent) and Highland High School got 434 points (58 percent) for their D grades.

The district's alternative high school, Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, received an F grade — as did many alternative schools throughout the state.

West High Principal Parley Jacobs pointed out that the grades don't take into account many of the subjects taught at a "comprehensive" high school. The school grade is based only on language arts, math and science test scores.

At West, Jacobs said, classes include social studies, world languages, fine arts, health/PE, and advanced math courses such as calculus, along with rigorous courses such as those offered through Advanced Placement and the IB program. Other overlooked factors include student engagement, school climate, progression toward graduation, concurrent enrollment, and Career and Technical Education coursework, he said.

It would be more accurate to consider all of these factors, similar to the calculation of a grade point average, he said.

Jacobs said many West students made academic progress, but only those over a certain bar — above the 40th percentile, when compared to their academic peers — were given points under the new school grades.

"A high school is such a comprehensive area," Jacobs said. "We're not an F school, we're an A school with all we're doing with kids."

Parent Steve Asay, West High School's school community council president, said "the first year [of grading] does not represent anything but a baseline."

It's "a good concept but it's a lousy execution," said Asay, who graduated from West in 1971. "We are an inner-city school that happens to have an ELP [Extended Learning Program] for 7 and 8th grades and IB program."

He added, "I'm not going to let a grade tell me my school is bad. We know what we're going to do to get better, no matter what the grade says."

On the Salt Lake City School District website, administrators wrote, "All Salt Lake City schools have successes and challenges. A single letter grade can't accurately tell their stories."

It suggests people consider other factors, including school websites and school improvement plans.

"Utah has one of the most comprehensive school accountability systems in the nation," the website reads, referring to UCAS, or Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, which groups schools into percentiles. Those scores will be released later this month.

"However, some in the Utah Legislature felt parents were not comfortable handling so much information," the district site said. "They designed an additional system that assigns each school only a single letter grade."

Parents can become more involved by seeking election to their School Community Council (SCC). State lawmakers are requiring each school this year to list its SCC agendas and meetings on the school websites.

Prior to Nov. 16, principals must post on their Internet and in the school office: names and contact information (email or phone) for each member of the council; the proposed meeting schedule for the school year; and a summary of the School LAND Trust Program Plan completed in the prior school year.

Each public school receives LAND Trust money, which comes from private industry using public land. Each school received about $62 per student last school year, or in West High's case, roughly $119,000. The SCC then uses that money to help improve student academics.

At West, the LAND trust money was used last year for several projects, including: paying stipends to the teaching staff for their work after school and during the summer; the Freshman Focus program, which trains them in study skills and introduces them to the school's programs; purchasing reading books and workbooks for English as a Second Language students; and purchasing iPads and a cart so teachers could teach the new technology to students and put applications on the Internet. —

See how Wasatch Front and charter high schools fared

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