By Wayne Niederhauser
Utah State Senator, District 9 (and President of the Senate)
Parents, principals and policymakers will soon have a powerful tool available to assist them in bettering the Utah educational system: school grades.
I believe accountability and transparency are the springboard from which improvement occurs. Without a clear public understanding of where we are performing well and where we are not, how can we effectively target areas to improve and incentivize better outcomes?
We’ve all heard the saying, “If it matters, measure it.” What could matter more than the investment we make in our children’s future through public education?
Providing parents and administrators with clarity about how our public schools are actually performing is a task the Legislature began to accomplish 2 1/2 years ago with the passage of School Grading, Utah’s school performance accountability system. Since that time we have worked with stakeholders to develop a useful, reliable, accurate system for measuring school performance. During the 2013 legislative session we improved the system through the passage of Senate Bill 271, School Grading Amendments.
I recently provided an update to the Legislative Education Interim Committee about the implementation of the law. You can view my PowerPoint slides (posted here as an online PDF) and hear the audio of my presentation and the committee discussion that followed it.
As School Grading Accountability Systems have been implemented across the nation, they have shone a bright light on the performance of schools. This has effectively directed the focus and attention of the minds of parents, officials and administrators on how to improve each individual school.
That is the hope we have for Utah through the mechanism of School Grading. The clarity of understanding that comes from these assigned letter grades has served as a rallying cry to bring communities together to seek solutions that provide every child with the opportunity to succeed.
The fundamental principles behind School Grading are to provide objective measures of student learning that focus on outcomes instead of inputs and to balance student proficiency with actual learning gains. School grading was built on the premise that every child deserves a year’s worth of growth in a year’s worth of time. Rewarding schools with points for anything less would be a less-effective incentive. To accept less would be to accept failure for that child. If we allow a student to fall further and further behind grade level we cannot expect them to have the skills they need to achieve success as adults. We want to incentivize greater efforts on behalf of those students.
Our newly enacted School Grading System is not intended to be an indictment of any group or any particular organization. It is a starting point where we as a community begin to have a discussion about how our schools are actually performing. Without this kind of transparency, I don’t believe we are ever going to get very far with substantive policy changes that will increase student achievement. In order for that to work well, the information must be simple, clear, concise and transparent — and easily understood by the public. That is one of the primary reasons why the Legislature went down this road to clarify school performance through an A-F School Grading Accountability System. As we reach clarity about the proficiency and academic growth of students, we will have a foundation from which to move forward.
Principals, parents, school board members, legislators and others will be able to better determine where adjustments need to be made to improve student outcomes:
Is it a funding issue?
Is it a teacher development issue?
Is it a technology issue?
These are the types of avenues we can explore once we have clarity. School Grading will provide us with a better springboard from which informed discussions about how to improve our schools can take place. Empowered with consistent information, we will be able to execute solutions for the challenges we may face in raising student achievement levels, how to increase graduation rates, how to prepare our students for college and career, and we will have consistent standards of measurement in place that are very transparent.
It is important to note that the School Grading mechanism will not be static. Modifications to School Grading will likely take place over time as they relate to standards and measurements. In order to incentivize increased student achievement for all children, standards will need to be adjusted. As schools improve, the thresholds for A-F will automatically increase according to statute, the growth percentile may need to be adjusted upwards, and proficiency levels may need to be raised to reflect more rigorous expectations of our students.
How we proceed will be up to the Utah Legislature and the State School Board. Any alterations must be done in a transparent manner. The discussion should take place within a public process at all levels. No adjustments should ever be made administratively. All modifications will directly affect the end goal, the incentives, and the bar each school needs to meet in order to earn the points that will ultimately determine their grade.
As our first school grades are issued to the public on September 1 of this year, I am confident that providing clear accountability and transparency about the performance of our public schools will serve as a catalyst for innovation and increased student achievement.
I look forward to a continued open dialogue about how to best improve academic outcomes for the children of Utah and hope this will begin to give parents and others clear tools to improve their schools for their children. This is the reason why the Legislature enacted the School Grading law.
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“This is not an indictment of teachers but of everybody,” Niederhauser said. “Without this transparency, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere [in improving education].”
“Testifying before the committee, Niederhauser said a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system is necessary for teachers and administrators to focus their efforts, for parents to understand what’s happening at their children’s schools, and for lawmakers to make substantive policy changes.”