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SALT LAKE CITY — School report cards will soon be released to the public and initially, at least, they will be issued without letter grades for Utah’s public schools.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in a letter to school districts and charter schools, said the latest school accountability dashboard will go live on Jan. 2, but the report will not include letter grades, largely because of “irregularities” with statewide test administration of the RISE test. RISE is an acronym for Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment.
RISE assessments are given annually to students in grades three through eight in language arts and math using online multistage adaptive testing. In fourth grade, science is tested. In grades five and eight, writing is tested.
Last spring, Utah schools experienced “systemwide, high-visibility interruptions of service” of test administration that left some district and charter schools with an “uneasy feeling” about the test data, Darin Nielsen, assistant state superintendent of student learning, said in an earlier interview. The event also led to the State School Board terminating its contract with test vendor Questar.
Presently, state statute requires letter grades to be part of the state accountability report. Test scores play a prominent role on the reports, but they also include other indicators and information about individual schools.
This year, the accountability reports will be posted without grades “until a determination about letter grades can be made by the Legislature during the 2020 general session,” Dickson wrote.
The State Board of Education webpage of the report card will also include a disclaimer about this year’s testing irregularities.
However, Dickson’s letter notes that three separate analyses found that results from last spring’s RISE tests are valid. However, advisory groups to the board “acknowledged that delivery system irregularities could have disproportionately impacted an individual school’s results,” Dickson wrote.
Of particular concern was whether schools could be erroneously identified for school turnaround based on test scores.
According to the letter, the State School Board felt it had two choices: to seek flexibility from the Legislature or allow appeals from individual schools that believe they were unduly affected by the irregularities, which can be problematic for small school districts or charter schools that may lack the expertise or personnel needed to file appeals.
“(The board) will need some statutory changes for the flexibility it seeks from the Legislature. We will pursue 2020 general session legislation with an immediate effective date to resolve this issue,” Dickson wrote.
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, will sponsor legislation during the session that opens in late January to remove the requirement for letter grades from the state accountability system.
This is her third attempt to pass the bill, which last year was approved overwhelmingly in the House but was not considered by the Utah Senate.
Poulson, a former educator, said she hopes to end the practice of assigning letter grades to schools, which largely rests on a school’s performance on statewide assessments.
The state has moved to a more comprehensive accountability dashboard, which Poulson says is “much superior to a single letter grade.”
The dashboard reports test achievement, student growth, progress of English learners and allows schools to report school-level factors that influence its performance such as consistent school attendance.
“I definitely think that this dashboard system is a better measure because it looks at all areas. With the testing, there’s only a few subjects that they test and school is much bigger than that,” she said.
“I think it’s only (testing) about 20% of the subjects in a public high school or middle school that even has testing, and so to report that a whole school is an A or a D or a C is really unfair to the school when you don’t consider all of the other excellent programs or other things that we need to look at,” Poulson said.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said its membership supports greater flexibility in the state’s accountability system, sans letter grades.
“A single letter grade just does not capture what’s happening in a school and is mostly used for high-stakes decisions and punishments, blaming and shaming based on one test on one one day. Yes it’s an indicator, but it does not come near to addressing the holistic successes or needs of a school,” Matthews said.
The beauty of the accountability dashboard, she said, is that it highlights initiatives and programs that benefit students at what are deemed “exemplary” schools.
Conversely, it spells out factors that impact achievement, growth and English language proficiency in “critical needs” schools, which Matthews said shifts the responsibility of student success to the public education system.
“What are we doing to help address the needs that are critical in this school?” she said.
The State School Board had a multiyear contract with RISE vendor Questar but voted in June to terminate the agreement after technical issues and several missed deadlines.
Two months later, the board entered a three-year contract with American Institutes of Research, makers of the SAGE test, for $21.6 million.
RISE was selected by the state board as a replacement for Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence or SAGE testing. In recent years, growing numbers of Utah students had opted out of SAGE testing, which was one reason the board sought a new testing vendor.
It remains to see if SB220, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, which was passed by the Legislature in 2017, offers sufficient latitude for the state board to forgo letter grades on the upcoming accountability report.
The legislation says, in part, that in a school year the State School Board determines it is necessary to establish a new testing baseline to determine student growth due to a transition to a new assessment, “the board is not required to assign an overall rating ... to a school to which the new baseline applies.”
Millner declined to comment, referring media inquiries to the State Board of Education.