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Letter grades for schools may not tell the whole story, some educators say

Sun Advocate publisher

(This is the second of two articles on the new grading system for schools).

Many adults tell kids that are in school that grades are just a part of life. And they add that when you are an adult, you have to make the grade every day.

Now Utah schools need to make the grade too.

Despite already having one evaluation system to examine how schools are doing, the Utah State Legislature passed Senate Bill 271 in last winter's session, a move, they say, that makes it easy for parents to understand where the school or schools their kids attend are at in relation to a standard set of criteria.

It is the familiar A, B, C, D, E grading system and the first results from that evaluation came out from the Utah State Board of Education last week.

While not many schools in the state got A grades (11 percent), only about 4 percent also got failing grades or Fs. Overall, 56 percent of the schools in the state got As and Bs. In the Carbon County School District the overall grades were Bs and Cs. The C grade accounted for 30 percent of the schools.

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, a charter school, ended up with C grades.

The new system, say supporting legislators, supplements and creates transparency that the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS) does not. But the simplicity of giving one grade for everything a school does is not what educators see as a valuable tool. And they say in some cases the system is loaded against institutions that are already high achieving schools.

"There is a flaw in this system of grading schools," said Judy Mainord, Secondary Supervisor for Carbon School District. "Half the grading process is based on growth of student achievement. Schools that already are high achieving lose out on that part of the formula. Creekview and Castle Heights Elementaries are good examples of that flaw. They received Cs while the other elementaries in the district got Bs, partly because of the growth in their students achievement."

Robert Cox, who is over special programs in the district pointed out that being able to make Bs or As is a tough assignment for schools that are already doing well.

"Under this system it is tough for a high performing school to make their grade higher." he stated last week after the grades were released.

Based on the rate of proficiency used that can be a problem says Mainord for any district or school. She said that if a school is not at a 40 percent proficiency already, any growth is not measured by the system.

"In other words if a school was at say a 30 percent proficiency and they grew 5 percent, that wouldn't count," she stated.

Steve Carlsen, the Superintendent of schools, said that administrators in the district are okay with the letter grades the schools got.

"Knowing the demographics of Carbon County, we are fairly pleased with the results of the grading system," he stated. Then he went on to say that he thought this second process was not only unnecessary and had a lot of problems.

One of those problems statewide is getting the number of students tested that need to be tested to make a good grade. West High School in Salt Lake City district got an F, despite having some outstanding programs. That F basically came because they were not able to test at least 95 percent of the students.

"Getting that 95 percent testing rate in a high school is tough," said Mainord. That's because students are sometimes absent during testing or other problems come up.

It seems the legislature is one of the few official bodies that like the new grading system, and that was only by a little. The vote was close in both houses of the body. The two local representatives (Sen. David Hinkins and Rep.Jerry Anderson) voiced their displeasure with the system in an interview printed last week in the Sun Advocate.

The Utah State Education Coalition (which includes organizations like the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association among others) has also printed a list of reasons why this kind of grading system is neither accurate or desirable.

Carlsen said that the district has no problem with being evaluated, but that the UCAS is the right way of doing it, not the letter grading system that exists now.

"We have no problem with being accountable," he said. "But UCAS is a better way to do it. It shows strengths and weaknesses of schools. That we can work with."

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