Fight Over School Grading System Heating Up

A political backlash over the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature’s new school grading system is ramping up.


Wednesday, Republican leaders in the House and Senate called a detailed press briefing in front of an Ogden school that did well in the grading to say parents, teachers and administrators need to get on board and improve their neighborhood schools.

Polk Elementary School in Ogden is in a building constructed in 1927, yet it got a B grade in the new, legislative-backed school grading system.

Tuesday, grades for the 900 or so public and charter schools in the state received letter grades.

Few high schools got an A, mainly because not 95 percent of their students were tested this year and last – a prerequisite to getting any grade above an F.

For example, West High School in Salt Lake City got an F, mainly because it didn’t have 95 percent compliance. However, West has a fine AP and IB (inter-baccalaureate) program.

West’s graduation rate is not up to par, especially failing in how many Hispanic students get a high school degree from the school, legislators point out.

You can find your neighborhood grade, middle and high schools’ grades here.

You can read about some of the criticisms of the new grading system in this Salt Lake Tribune article.

Wednesday, GOP legislative leaders brought together various backers of their new school grading program, including members of the Utah Technology Council and Prosperity 2020, a group that wants reforms and more funding for public schools.

Richard Nelson of the council said that several years ago, frustrated that the State School Board wouldn’t put greater emphasis on math in the schools, his group got the Legislature to add a full additional year to high school math.

That started in 2011, but is already showing promise.

“We have 4,100 jobs” in the technology sector of the market that aren’t being filled, because Utah graduates don’t have the proper skills, said Nelson. “These are good paying jobs.”

Alan Hall, the new chairman of Prosperity 2020 (which seeks two-thirds of Utahns having a post-high school degree or certificate of some kind by 2020), said he recently spoke to a high school math teacher, who holds a master’s degree.

The woman has 42 children in one class. Hall asked her how many of her students get the math assignment on the first go around of teaching.

“She said maybe 10.”

The challenge is bringing along those other 32 students in the second or third go around, he said.

He praised Utah teachers. “We know they are working hard.”

But more resources need to come to the schools – and the new grading system is an important part of that.

Implementing the new system “takes courage, and you are showing it,” Hall told the school administrators and teachers present.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was a House sponsor to one of the recent school-grading bills.

He said that lawmakers “are getting a lot of criticism on school grading.” But for years students are graded, and students graded coming from all walks of life.

(One of the complaints about the new school grading system is that, by and large, rich schools do well while poor schools are graded badly.)

“Before there was Title I, I was a Title I kid,” said Hughes, who was raised in meager resources in Pittsburgh. “I didn’t have a mother who spent time with me on homework, my mom was a single mother.”

Today he wonders at how much time his wife spends helping their children with schoolwork.

He didn’t get that help, sometimes didn’t get breakfast before school.

But we still grade students, even those with challenging backgrounds and home lives, he said.

“And it is absolutely essential that we do the same with our schools,” said Hughes.

“Not to demonize schools; not to put a scarlet letter on a struggling school. But to really rally the troops – a call to arms” — to get parents, teachers and administrators to help such schools.

Policymakers need to see how well Polk and other schools have done, said Hughes. Utah will always have finite financial resources for public schools, but managed well, “incredible” results can be achieved, he added.

Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith, whose three children went to Polk Elementary, said after he learned that Polk was getting a B in the first grade, he asked his staff to go back and see what they would have gotten one year back.

Applying the test scores and other measures, Polk would have gotten a C.

“This is not chance” that Polk has improved so much over one year, said Smith. “It was hard work” by the teachers, who agreed and support a “fundamental shift” in how education was delivered in the school.

“We have to change behavior” in the school setting. “And that is uncomfortable for adults, my friends,” said Smith.

But even Smith couldn’t be a cheerleader for school grades.

He said while he gives “three cheers” for Polk and other schools that are doing well, “I give only two cheers for school grades; for they will be utterly meaningless unless someone does something about them.”

In other words, parents, teachers, administrators, civic leaders in the neighborhood schools must work to change the schools’ grades, improve the education, or all the grading is for naught.

For local politicians – especially the GOP legislators who forced school grading on Utah communities – there will be more opportunities to explain how great school grading is.

And for the state School Boards Association, teacher unions and individual teachers and administrators to question why their schools are ranked so badly when they are working so hard for a better education.