Mont Harmon teacher John Quackenbush welcomes students back to school for a new year.
(This is the first of two articles concerning Senate Bill 271 from last winter's Utah legislative session. The bill set up a system to grade schools with letter grades. This article explains how it works and the political points of view concerning the bill's ramifications. The next article will deal with what educational organizations and specific educators think about the system.)
One will find few educators who like the idea that the Utah State Legislature mandated that schools should get letter grades, so parents can better assess where their schools are in relation to others in the state.
Many fear that one grade for everything a school does is too simplistic.
As far as Carbon Schools go, they were shown to be average to above average when those grades were released on Tuesday. All registered either Bs or Cs.
Three elementary schools in the district - Bruin Point, Wellington and Sally Mauro - got B grades from the report that came from the Utah State Board of Education. The rest of the elementaries got Cs.
The two junior highs, Helper and Mont Harmon, both garnered Cs.
As for the high schools, Carbon got a B and Lighthouse received a C.
Pinnacle Canyon Academy ended up with C grades.
Within the system used to generate the grades junior highs, elementaries and middle schools were all grouped into one category, with each school having the possibility of accumulating 600 points. The point system was broken into proficiency with math, language arts and science all assigned a 100 point total each, with 300 over the three subjects possible.
The other half of the 600 possible points came from growth in those three disciplines. For all three subject areas 50 points could come from the scores that students got on CRT tests last year. Then if those scores improved for students who were not or less proficient in 2012, the schools could gain up to 50 points for each subject there as well.
At the high school level the total points accumulated could be 750. Schools could get up to 100 points for science, math and language arts just as the lower grades did. Proficiency and improvement in subjects was also worked in almost the same way. Added to the possible 600 points was 150 points which could come from a schools graduation rate. In other words the number of points that could be taken toward the schools grade would be based on the percentage of graduation the school had. So if a school had a 70 percent graduation rate they would get 105 out of 150 points possible.
There is one other little caveat on the high schools however. If a school did not test at least 95 percent of their students they got an automatic F. That happened to a few schools in the state.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Greg Hughs. They had the backing of much of leadership on this bill, but the vote on it was close when it came to the end. In the Senate it won 16-10 (with three absent) and in the House it won 38-36 with one absent. The governor was urged by many groups to veto the bill, but he did eventually sign it.
Opponents of the system cite the differences between geographical areas, particularly when it comes to socioeconomic status.
"This is unfair," said State Sen. David Hinkins, District 29, who did not vote on SB 271 that established the process. "This is not an evaluation of grading academics but one of grading poverty levels."
Hinkins said that he sees some real disparity in what schools can do in certain parts of the state. In his senate district he has one county in particular that could be one of the most challenged in Utah when it comes to being equal to others, particularly urban schools.
"How can you judge San Juan County's schools against some of the others," he said. "They use so much of the money they have just for busing students. There is also a lot of poverty on the reservation and you have a lot of grandparents raising their grand kids."
To Hinkins the move is one that would be okay if the state were going to do something about the disparity, but he doesn't think that will happen.
"Maybe they should take some of the money from the A schools and give it to the schools that didn't fare so well," he said. "There is a lot of difference between having a student whose parents are university professors living in a city compared to many rural areas where there may not even be an internet connection."
In fact the school with the highest ranking in the state was Utah County Academy of Sciences that is on the Utah Valley University Campus. It is a charter school that has about 400 students that are selected in a lottery to get in. The vast majority of students get an associate degree as they graduate from that high school. In the point total they got 642 points out of the possible 750.
On the other hand all one has to do is look at Hinkins' suggestions. Whitehorse High School got a D and Monument Valley High got an F. These schools are very rural and very impoverished.
Rep. Jerry Anderson feels the same. Representing District 69 he has a lot of schools in his area that do not have the advantages some in urban areas have.
"I argued against this right from the beginning," he said on Tuesday. "This kind of thing leads to teachers just teaching for the test. It certainly has its problems."
The idea of schools being accountable is nothing new, but many feel the simplicity of giving one grade for everything that a school does is not a very good measure of what goes on. And there are other factors in the way the formula is used that create some disparity as well.