As Park City’s school grades drop, methods questioned
According to the marks the Utah State Board of Education doles out to every school in the state each year, Park City schools didn’t make the grade.
But Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District, expressed her frustration with the grading system. She is adamant that it doesn’t accurately reflect the education students are receiving.
“I would say that, as an educator and expert in the field of education, I don’t put any value on school grades,” she said.
The grades, released earlier this month, indicate that the performance of several Park City schools dropped. Park City High School fell from an A grade in the 2014-2015 school year to a C. Treasure Mountain Junior High slipped to a C from a B, while Ecker Hill Middle school maintained its B. McPolin Elementary earned a D, down from a C, and Parley’s Park and Trailside elementary schools kept their Bs. Jeremy Ranch Elementary School was the only one in the district to earn an A.
Conley’s disdain for the grades stems from a few factors. First, much of a school’s grade is based on student performance on the state-mandated SAGE tests. But PCHS and Treasure Mountain saw nearly 40 percent of students opt out of taking the exams, which Conley said skewed the results.
Additionally, a recent change to the law that requires the state to hand out marks to schools each year bumped many schools down a letter grade statewide. The law states that when at least two-thirds of schools in the state earn an A or a B, the minimum score necessary for each grade becomes tougher. That means that some schools that would have otherwise earned As instead received Bs, schools that qualified for Bs instead earned Cs, and so on.
Given that, Conley said it was not surprising to see Park City’s schools drop. But that doesn’t mean she thinks it’s fair.
“It’s based on an idea that there will always be schools that fail, and I disagree with that idea,” she said. “I also find (the grades) a very poor measure of what we do each and every day with our students. It does not reflect reality. To look at our schools and say that they’re anywhere from a B to a D, but yet we have the two highest-performing AP students in the state — we were just notified — is wrong.”
Conley added that the district’s own benchmarking tool, a testing and evaluation system called Galileo, shows student performance continues to improve. Those evaluations aren’t based on grades, but instead on the mastery of skills. Those results, some of which are available on the district’s website, pcschools.us, indicate that the majority of grades have seen year-to-year growth.
“It’s the mastery of learning a concept, versus how you perform on a one-time indicator of SAGE,” she said.
The Utah State Board of Education sees the school grades primarily as a way to keep school districts accountable, but the district is at no risk of punishment from the state for its falling marks. However, Conley said the grades aren’t without real-world impacts.
“My sadness with the school grades is that so many people that might be moving in, or people concerned with real estate values, may use that for a metric for what’s really happening,” she said. “And that’s not an accurate picture.”
In light of criticism surrounding the school grading system, the Utah State Board of Education is recommending that the Legislature implement tweaks during the upcoming legislative session, according to a press release. Chief among the recommendations is that SAGE testing be eliminated for grades nine through 12, with ACT prep tests and the ACT exam being used instead.
Also, additional metrics would be used to evaluate schools. For high schools, the grades would consider advanced course offerings, CTE certificates and improvements for at-risk populations. For elementary schools, factors such as reading progress, progression among English language learners and teacher absenteeism would be evaluated.
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