Transparency: Shining the Light on School Grading

When the roll-out of a landmark educational policy is prefaced by statements from legislative leaders like, “you should expect resistance from some who are uncomfortable with transparency,” or, in referring to comments from concerned educators, “don’t take them seriously,” it does not bode well for concerned, engaged citizens seeking to educate themselves about the initiative. Such is the atmosphere surrounding the launch of the Utah Legislature’s new School Grading law.


Modeled after Florida’s school grading program, Utah’s version was initiated in the 2011 legislative session. It has been touted by policymakers as a key strategy to increase educational outcomes in Utah, and, as noted on the Legislature’s new school grading website, “a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system that focuses on outcomes instead of inputs.”

Will a single school letter grade accurately reflect outcomes? Are parents and community members really incapable of comprehending anything other than a letter grade? Is it reasonable to disregard inputs? And, how does Utah compare to the model state, Florida, in both inputs and outcomes?

Let’s examine the highly publicized Florida reform initiative, including the practice of school grading. In Florida, assigning schools a letter grade was just one component of a larger reform package, with the most significant parts of the reform being focused on “inputs.”  For example, in addition to assigning letter grades to schools, in 2002 Florida passed a constitutional amendment that limited class sizes in core subjects to 18 students in K-3rd, 22 students in 4th – 8th,  and 25 students in 9th – 12th grade classrooms. (By comparison, Utah’s K-3 classrooms average 22-25 students and 4th – 12th grade classrooms average between 26-31 students.) In the past 10 years, Florida has spent $24.5 billion dollars to implement their Class Size Reduction Amendment.

The Florida School Recognition Program, connected to school grading, was designed to reward schools who sustain high performance (earning a school grade of A or improving by one letter grade in a year) by paying the school up to $100 per student. The total amount awarded through this program in 2012 alone was $134,582,877 – money that certainly must go a long way to provide additional academic interventions for low-performing students.

Another part of the reform initiative in Florida included $300 million of targeted professional development on reading instruction for elementary teachers throughout the state. Of course, a significant, ongoing input in Florida is their per-pupil expenditures, which, in the most recent reports, are cited at $10,283 per student, compared to Utah’s $7,916.

But let’s get back to the outcomes – how does Utah compare to Florida a decade after Florida’s bold and expensive reform measures began? This table shows the comparison between Florida and Utah student outcomes and, surprisingly, despite the massive amount of resources invested in their reform efforts, along with the implementation of school grading, Florida trails Utah in all of these outcome measures save one: Florida’s 4th grade NAEP reading scores are higher than Utah’s, reflecting Florida’s reform-driven policy of retaining all 3rd graders who were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade. (Non-proficient 3rd graders are not promoted to 4th grade and, subsequently, 4th grade reading scores increase.)




Graduation Rate



ACT Scores2



NAEP3 8th Grade Math



NAEP 4th Grade Math



NAEP 8th Grade Reading



NAEP 4th Grade Reading



1All statistics are based on the most recent reports available from NAEP, NCES and ACT
2 74% of Florida students take the ACT compared to 100% of Utah students
3National Assessment of Educational Progress

The fact that Florida’s monetary “inputs” over the past decade vastly outweigh Utah’s, and yet Utah’s “outcomes” are superior should cause lawmakers and the general public alike to pause and consider what the true effect of grading schools has been on increasing educational excellence.

Inputs and outcomes aside, while many in the legislature are enamored of Florida’s school grading system, now replicated in Utah, not everyone in Florida sees school grading as “transparent” or “easy-to-understand.” A recent Miami Herald article stated, “With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get F’s, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.”

Exposing the truth about what school grading has or has not accomplished in Florida is the kind of transparency Utah citizens should expect from their elected officials – including the examination of both inputs and outcomes. And despite some lawmakers’ attempts to prevent or discredit any criticism of the new School Grading initiative, a healthy dose of sunlight is what this program needs. Discouraging honest dialogue never leads to better “outcomes.”