Editorial: Utah’s system for grading schools is fatally flawed
August 16, 2018
By most measures, Park City's public school system is one of the best in the state. Many, in fact, rank it at the very top of the list.
It would be disorienting, then, to see the Park City School District slapped with failing marks each fall when the annual letter grades for schools, which are based on statewide test scores, are released.
That's the scenario the district may be facing, however, after the U.S. Department of Education ruled that Utah schools with participation levels of less than 95 percent in end-of-year testing will be required to count students who opted out as scoring zeroes. Previously, schools that missed that mark were docked one letter grade, but the new policy could scuttle a school's report card even if the students who did take the tests performed well.
While an unfortunate ruling for schools throughout the state, it's especially problematic for the Park City School District, where opt outs are well above state averages and have steadily risen in recent years as more parents and students question the value of taking the exams. Last year, for instance, roughly 21 percent of students across the district declined to participate, including a whopping 47 percent at Park City High School.
To be clear, the usefulness of using the letter grades to evaluate a school's performance is dubious in the first place. The "F" given to Treasure Mountain Junior High School — an excellent school by nearly all accounts — in 2017 thanks to students opting out of the exams or not giving their full effort is evidence of that. Park City school officials, in fact, use an internal testing system to measure growth rather than the statewide tests. And it's hard to blame parents for allowing their children to skip the exams — students' schedules are already littered with tests, and scoring well on the statewide exams doesn't benefit them.
Nonetheless, the grades do matter, which is why the prospect of making the system even worse and penalizing more schools in Park City is worrying. Schools that consistently grade poorly are generally put into a special state program and are required to bring in an outside consultant to help turn around their performance. The letter grades can also factor into parents' decisions when considering whether to move into a district's boundaries.
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And seeing an "F" is doubtlessly jarring for parents who are unfamiliar with the questionable methodology behind the grading system.
That the district has to concern itself with those ramifications is ridiculous given the first-class education it provides. To its credit, the Utah State Board of Education has wisely chosen not to award the letter grades this fall while it searches for a solution to the problem the U.S. Department of Education's ruling will cause.
For the sake of Park City's schools, let's hope it finds one. Our schools are not failing, and any grading system that says they are is fatally flawed.
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