Under new policy, high opt-out rates could sink Park City School District’s statewide grades
The Park City School District in 2017 was given its first “F” school grade from the state. Thanks to a new decision from the federal government, more failing grades might not be far behind.
The U.S. Department of Education recently approved Utah’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act but it denied the Utah State Board of Education’s request for a waiver that would have removed the policy’s requirement for schools to have at least 95 percent participation on end-of-year tests. Schools that do not hit the minimum participation levels must now count opt-outs as zeroes in order to make up for the difference. School grades, which are based on statewide testing scores, are likely to drop and have negative consequences on districts with high opt-out rates such as Park City.
Under the previous federal policy for schools, No Child Left Behind, schools with less than 95 percent participation in statewide assessments would receive a reduction of one letter grade.
Andrew Frink, director of technology and assessment for the Park City School District, said the opt-out rates at Park City High School for the SAGE tests, which have been replaced with new assessments, have been around 50 percent for the last couple of years.
“From an accountability standpoint, that will be a significant impact for us,” Frink said. “As to what that will actually mean, I don’t know yet. I know that if it puts us into a ‘needs improvement’ world, there are potential negative implications for us.”
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said schools with consistent failing grades are put into a turnaround program. Generally, the schools are required to hire an outside consultant to assess the needs of the school and hire extra support to “pull them out of their poor performance.” Matthews was a former librarian at Treasure Mountain Junior High as well as president of the Park City Education Association.
But the state hopes to not make the mistake of only looking at test scores to determine a school’s performance, said Darin Nielsen, assistant superintendent for student learning in the state. He said the state plans on taking the opt-out rates into consideration before placing schools in the turnaround program.
The test scores and school grades are mainly taken into account when the state determines which Title 1 schools are in the bottom 5 percent and need extra funding. Title 1 schools receive federal funding because they have a certain percentage of students from low-income families. If the state is under the impression that high opt-out rates are to blame for failing test scores, it will redirect the funds to schools that need financial assistance, Nielsen said.
The Park City district has two Title 1 schools: McPolin Elementary School and Parley’s Park Elementary School. Opt-out rates are relatively low in the two elementary schools – 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively – but they have increased in the last two years.
For Matthews, the concern about the 95 percent rule is that people could look at the grades to make decisions, such as selecting to live in a certain neighborhood based on the performance of surrounding schools.
“In Park City, I think one of the biggest risks is reputation,” she said. “If you have multiple failing schools, that’s not a real selling point.”
She said the data being collected is not meaningful because it determines the proficiency of a school based on one test. Instead, she wants to see the state take several factors into account, such as attendance, graduation rates and the number of high-division courses or clubs.
Nielsen said the Utah State Board of Education decided it will not award school grades in the fall of this year as it determines a solution to align federal and state accountability systems. Those solutions include a plan amendment, legislative changes or more emphasis on finding the root causes of why students choose not to take the exam. Nielsen said making the tests more meaningful to students could encourage more participation, which is part of the reason the new assessment for the high school is predictive of the ACT test.
Nielsen and Frink are hopeful that more high school students will see the value of the new test, ACT Aspire, and choose to take it. Students between grades three and eight will also be given a new standardized exam in the upcoming school year, the RISE test, which both Nielsen and Frink are also hopeful will have better support than the previous SAGE test.
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