Schools get ‘typical’ grades; some English learners are struggling

By Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent

Report cards are here, but this time the schools are receiving them, not handing them out.

The Utah State Board of Education released new statewide assessments to the public on Thursday, Jan. 3. Instead of the old method of assigning each school an overall letter grade, the new version ranks schools in three or four categories.

Three categories – achievement, growth and the progress of English learners – are based on test scores and apply to every school. High schools are also evaluated on students’ postsecondary readiness, measured by ACT scores, graduation rates and certain coursework, such as the percentage of students enrolled in advanced placement classes.

To replace the A through F letter grades, the schools are ranked as either exemplary (scoring roughly in the top quarter), commendable (top third), typical (middle third), developing (bottom third) or critical needs (bottom quarter) in each category. Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder said the new system is more informative than the old one. “I think people can see if there’s deficiencies in specific areas, whereas before it was just kind of a feeling tied to the grades,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re going to stay with [the new system], but I definitely think it’s more beneficial,” Stroder said. “Instead of just painting the school with a broad brush,” he explained, the new system shows where schools are strong and which areas need improvement.

The three campuses in Grand County School District earned typical ratings in most categories, with a few exceptions.

Helen M. Knight Elementary School was ranked as typical in achievement, which measures the amount of students who met the state’s grade-level expectations in English language arts, mathematics and science. About 44 percent of HMK students demonstrated grade-level mastery in English, a slight decrease from last year and three percent below the state average. HMK was strongest in science with 52 percent performing at grade level, exactly the state average and a 10 percent improvement from the previous year. Math was the weakest subject with slightly less than 40 percent meeting the mark, though that was a three percent increase.

HMK Principal Taryn Kay also expressed support for the new system over the old one. She said people often look at a letter grade with a lot of preconceptions about what it means, whereas the new system forces people to look deeper.

The growth metric shows the amount of improvement students made in each subject, illustrating whether students are learning, according to the state board of education. HMK students showed typical growth in English and math with high growth in science.

The report indicates HMK’s weakest area is in English learner progress, which shows the percentage of students learning English as a second language who have made adequate progress or reached proficiency. Only 28.5 percent of HMK’s English learners made adequate progress and zero percent reached proficiency. The state average for adequate progress is 44 percent, but the state average for reaching proficiency is only 4 percent. Those numbers landed HMK a critical needs score in that category.

Kay said she was glad the area was categorized as a need because it is something the school is working to improve. She said HMK has a “robust” English-as-a-second-language program, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve. Kay noted that the quickest way to improve would be to hire more staff. Having more instructors “leads to smaller groups sizes” and allows for more individualized instruction. It can be quite challenging to establish the language foundation needed to learn all the other grade-level coursework.

Notably, the report claims that 12 percent of the students at HMK are English language learners. Kay said that number has “remained steady” over the past few years, but it is not uncommon for a new student to come in with no English skills at all, a challenge not often faced by the district’s other schools. The school’s scores are also dragged down by the rule that any student who arrives before April 15 must be tested for that year, even if they have only had a few weeks of instruction.

Furthermore, 54 percent of HMK students are considered to be “economically disadvantaged.” Overall, HMK earned 74 points out of the possible 150. Kay thought the report identified some goals that the school’s staff will continue working toward improving.

Both the middle school and the high school have less than 10 percent of students classified as English language learners and around 40 percent who are classified as economically disadvantaged.

The results for Grand County Middle School were similar to those of HMK, as it earned the typical rank in achievement and growth, but it also managed to earn a typical rank for English learner progress. Like HMK, middle school students were strongest in science and weakest in math, though unlike the elementary school, GCMS achieved high growth in both science and math. Almost 43 percent of English learners demonstrated adequate progress, but again none reached proficiency.

The middle school barely outdid HMK in terms of overall score, with a total of 77 out of 150.

Grand County High School’s results continued the trend of typical scores in growth and achievement, but it received a developing rank in English learner progress. GCHS stood out in the fourth category, postsecondary readiness, by earning the district’s lone commendable rating.

High School Principal Steve Hren agreed with Stroder about the benefits of the new system. Hren said the state board may try to correlate the rankings to an overall letter grade, but he hopes they don’t. “When you have a letter grade, people just equate it right away to the overall program,” Hren said, noting how the new system allows for more nuance.

Like the other schools, high school students in Moab struggled with math and excelled in science. Only about 21 percent of high schoolers demonstrated grade-level proficiency in mathematics, which was a nine percent drop from last year. GCHS landed close to the state average in English with 41 percent and surpassed the average in science with 46 percent.

Though he admitted the school is low in math, Hren questioned how accurately those scores reflect student achievement. He explained that the report’s numbers are based on the state’s SAGE test, which is important, Hren said, because “there’s no way we can incentivize it.”

Hren pointed out the high school started using a new internal assessment called MAP testing that was developed by a group of educators in Washington. It is norm-referenced, meaning it compares students’ scores to other kids around the nation instead of just Utah. Hren said scores on the MAP assessment were higher than the SAGE test “across the board,” including in math. That is likely because the MAP assessment can be incentivized and count toward a final grade, which gives students far more motivation to do well.

Grand County High also implemented a new program this year for the math classes taken by freshmen and sophomores. The new program is completely online, with a teacher present to facilitate and give one-on-one instruction. Hren described the “tiered system” that goes along with the program. If a student is struggling, he or she is pulled aside by a teacher’s assistant with a math background to receive extra help. “In terms of grades, we had probably the lowest failure rate after the first trimester compared to previous years,” he said.

Hren acknowledged that some students and parents don’t like the new program, but whether it will continue or not will likely be decided by the test scores and failure rates at the end of the year. “At the beginning of the year it was pretty tough, but I think it’s going more smoothly now,” Hren noted. One major advantage is students can move at their own pace, so those who excel can complete their course requirements earlier and move on to the next level.

In terms of growth, GCHS was typical overall but only showed low improvement in the three subject areas and fell below the state average in each.

With 50 percent of English learners making adequate progress, the high school surpassed the state average by six percent, but since none reached proficiency, the school still received a developing rank. Hren sees room for improvement, but he is confident that it is already occurring. “I think we have a strong ESL (English as a second language) program,” he said. “Our ESL teacher is amazing. She is really developing a strong program and I think that we’ll see changes there in the next couple years.”

Hren was quick to highlight the high school’s good results in postsecondary readiness. With almost 70 percent of students earning an 18 or higher on the ACT, GCHS was six percentage points ahead of the state average in that regard. The school’s 86 percent four-year graduation rate was right on par with the state average.

What earned GCHS the commendable rating was the fact that 90 percent of its students are enrolled in “readiness coursework.” That includes the students in AP, concurrent enrollment or career and technical education classes. The CTE department is most responsible for the high numbers, with 76 percent of GCHS students taking a CTE course. Hren pointed out that the high school has added a number of new CTE courses, including engineering and robotics. Notably, the popular bike mechanic program is too new to be included in this report. “Mr. Stocks has done a good job in building the CTE programs and developing different opportunities for students,” said Hren.

Hren added that GCHS students scoring higher than the national average on AP tests also contributed to the school’s high ranking in that area. He was happy to see the school ranking highly in the postsecondary readiness category because “It’s more indicative of what we’re doing here rather than just having so much placed on the SAGE test.”

For its overall score, the high school earned 113 points out of the possible 225.