SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's school grading program was met with an immediate backlash when grades were released for the first time last year.
Most schools received either a B or C grade, prompting educators to warn that the reports painted too narrow a picture of school performance.
If reaction to the program has so far been negative, it's not likely to improve when parents see the report cards their children's schools bring home this fall.
"We believe that the majority of our schools, if we calculate it the same as we have in the past, will now be receiving a D or an F for their school grade," Associate State Superintendent Judy Park told members of the State School Board on Friday.
The drop in grades is the result of Utah's new year-end test, SAGE, which holds students to a higher standard and consequently finds more children falling short of grade-level expectations.
The actual performance of students and schools will not have changed, Park said, but the threshold for what is considered satisfactory is now more difficult to reach.
"Our schools will be doing as good a job as they have done in the past," she said.
Official school- and district-level SAGE scores are expected to be released in October, with school grades and school accountability reports arriving later.
But preliminary data, based on cut scores approved Friday by the State School Board, suggest that fewer than one-half of Utah students — and in some grade levels fewer than one in three — will be shown to be testing proficiently in math, science and English.
Deon Turley, education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, compared the SAGE test scores to improved vision, which allows a person to see more clearly both the good and bad around them.
"We’re going to see some things we are not going to be happy to see," Turley said. "But it’s what happens with that information that is going to be important."
Turley said that parents who are involved in their schools will recognize that the quality of instruction did not suddenly plummet in the space of a single year.
But she said that for parents who are looking to move to a new area, or to Utah from another state, a glaring D or F grade on a neighborhood school has the potential to create a public relations nightmare.
"I’ve always felt like a single grade is not going to tell you what you need to know about a school," she said. "Our message to parents from the PTA is 'don’t freak out about these grades.' They can’t tell you what you really want to know about your school, and when you’re resetting to a new test, you can’t compare this year to last year."
Members of the State School Board hope to convince lawmakers to work with them on avoiding the angst that could result from new, drastically lower, school grades.
An amendment to the school grading law gives the State School Board some flexibility in calculating the first year of SAGE scores, but board member Debra Roberts said that artificially inflating this year's grades undercuts the transparency that officials hoped to achieve by raising school standards.
"I don’t see integrity in that choice," she said.
Instead, Roberts suggested that the board ask lawmakers to "freeze" school grades for one year, allowing the State Office of Education to set a baseline standard for SAGE scores to which future growth and improvement can be compared.
The board voted to postpone a decision on school grade calculations until board members could meet with lawmakers and discuss options, which include a standard calculation that would see most schools fail, an adjusted calculation to mitigate the decline in proficiency scores or a one-year freeze on the issuance of school grades.
The board also voted unanimously to support replacing the state's school accountability program and school grades with a report card developed by the Governor's Office.
Utah has maintained two systems for reporting on school performance since the creation of the school grading program by the Utah Legislature.
But Tami Pyfer, Gov. Gary Herbert's education director, suggested that the governor's PACE School Report Card could supplant both systems and instead provide Utah parents with a single, comprehensive snapshot of school performance.
"I have been contacted by a couple of legislators who are interested in supporting this," Pyfer said.
Any changes to the school grading law would come during the upcoming legislative session, which would occur after the State Office of Education is required by law to issue school grades.
Asked for his thoughts on an impending mass failure of Utah schools, Herbert said he recognizes that raising the bar on educational excellence coincides with a change in what is considered satisfactory.
"I’m not worried at all about the cut scores and the failing," Herbert said. "I don’t think it sends a good message, but you’ve got to establish a baseline to raise the bar and we’re doing that with higher standards that we’ve embraced."