Get ready for some political heat, Utah legislators.
On Sept. 3 the state’s new public school grading system will officially begin, and citizens will be able to look up the grades their local schools receive.
And with that new ranking system will no doubt come anger and disappointment (unless your local grade, middle or high schools all get As).
“Yes, there will be political heat,” says Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who sponsored the first school grading bill back in 2011. (There have been several amendments since to the new statute which calls for the first grades to be compiled and made public Sept. 3.)
And that heat is a good thing, adds Niederhauser. “Because we all “own” our schools, and the children in them.”
In other words, the new grades will get the attention of parents, students, teachers and administrators – with the hoped-for rededication to improving each and every school.
“For once we’ll be measuring outcomes, not inputs,” said Niederhauser, who is a strong advocate of various new ways to measure the effectiveness of government and its chief sidelines – public and higher education.
The individual school grading system started out 15 years ago in Florida. And depending on whom you talk to, it is either a great idea or a disaster.
Generally speaking, teachers and school administrators don’t like the grading system, saying schools in the poor part of towns or in rural areas tend to get lower scores than do schools in largely white, rich areas.
Thus, poor, and poorly-graded, schools are, again, singled out for criticism, while rich schools draw even more folks who can afford to move into those neighborhoods.
But advocates of school grading, who include GOP leaders of both the House and Senate, say once parents and political leaders of school communities see the “bright light” of a scorecard revealed, they can then organize to make their schools better.
And have an achievable goal to go after.
You can read the latest amendment to the school grading law here. You’ll notice that the change lowers the standards for a school to achieve an A, B, C or D. Those who get below a 50 percent grade will still be ranked as an F.
The web site for the new system is still under construction. You can find it at: www.utahschoolgrading.com when the grades are officially made public next Tuesday.
The elected State School Board prefers a different school evaluation system, now used in other states, which doesn’t give a letter grade, like A, B, C, D or F, to local schools.
Called UCAS, for Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, it is a voluntary program that the State Board has adopted on its own. You can read about it here.
UCAS will role out in October, says Kory Holdaway, a former GOP House member who now is the government affairs director for the Utah Education Association, the largest teacher union.
In fact, says Holdaway, with school grades, UCAS and an older school evaluation system – connected to the federal No Child Left Behind program -- there will be three different evaluation systems for each Utah school – grade, middle and high school.
That can bring not only confusion, but varying goals each school is expected to meet, says Holdaway.
“With the complexity of measuring school achievements,” said Holdaway, “we are opposed to a letter grade system.” But the UEA does support a more broad-based school evaluation system, one that does reflect the multi-faceted elements of a school’s education efforts.
The latter system has been around for years, he notes, and is more complex and involved. Every year teachers, parents and administrators draw up a plan with goals to meet; that plan is approved by the local school community and the elected local school board.
“The UEA really doesn’t want any grading system,” says Niederhauser, who has participated in the original school grading bill, which he sponsored, and the subsequent changes over the last several years.
UCAS and the new school grading law “really are very close,” the president said. “In fact, UCAS is the base for the school grading system. The big difference is that UCAS gave partial points for a student’s incremental growth, while the new statute does not.”
Explained simply, said Niederhauser, a child would get half credit if he advanced over a full year only half the progress required. But a child should go from 2nd grade to 3rd grade in a year, not from 2nd grade to 2.5 grade in a year. “Why give half credit when he’s fallen behind by a half a year?” asks Niederhauser.
Holdaway said the UEA was frozen out of discussions of last session’s SB271 – which changed the school grade system -- a process he claims was dominated by the conservative Parents For Choice in Education, the group that pushed taxpayer funds for private schools several years ago. (The Legislature passed it, but it was later removed from the books by a citizen referendum vote.)
But GOP legislative leaders maintain that a letter grade is more easily understood by parents and school patrons. And while no grading system is ever complete – and will lack some specificity – a school grading system can, and should, catch the eye of local school residents and parents.
Niederhauser has gotten a peak at the school grades that will come out next week and the UCAS evaluations coming out in October.
Comparing the two rankings, said Niederhauser, you find they are close, with the school grades having more higher-end rankings while UCAS has more middle-of-the-range rankings for the hundreds of schools across the state.
Leaders sent out a letter to all lawmakers this week reminding them that the grades are coming out and giving some information on how the schools are graded and encouraging legislators to come up to speed on the school grading issue.
Not said, but implied, is that lawmakers should be prepared to get some angry calls from parents in their districts not happy with their schools’ grades.
Tweaks may be made over the next few legislative general sessions, said Niederhauser. But don’t look for lawmakers to repeal school letter grades, even if parents complain their local schools are getting Cs, Ds or Fs.
The hard core results may be tough to take at first, says Niederhauser. But just as happened in Florida, the lower-grade schools will rally. Teachers and parents will organize and demand better schools.
Poor Hispanic students in Florida didn’t do as well as the suburban white kids at first, noted Niederhauser.
But now, according to recent test scores, those poor Hispanic Florida kids are doing as well as the average Utah student.
Over the next 20 or 30 years, the numbers of poor minorities will grow in Utah. And they won’t graduate from high school, be college prepared or career prepared unless Utah schools change, said Niederhauser.
“These are not someone else’s kids, someone else’s schools. They are all our kids and schools, we “own” all of them,” he added.
And the school grading system is a great tool – even if it breeds some anger and resentment – to get the attention of teachers, parents, students and administrators.
“Legislators and the governor believe school grading is important,” said Niederhauser. “It brings clarity and results. And the basics (of school grading) are not going to change.”