Proposed bill in Utah Legislature would eliminate school grades

In the most recent state accountability reports, Utah schools were not labeled with the usual letter grades. That trend could continue.

A bill from Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, would remove the requirement for the Utah State Board of Education to annually assign schools a letter grade to demonstrate how they are performing. Instead, schools would receive an overall ranking using words and phrases such as “exemplary,” “typical” and “critical needs.” The bill, H.B. 198, received a favorable recommendation from the House Education Committee last week.

If the bill were to pass, schools would receive an overall ranking on a five-point scale, as well as rankings for individual categories. The rankings would be “exemplary,” “commendable,” “typical,” “developing” and “critical needs.”

School grades have been controversial throughout the state since they were adopted five years ago. Critics of school grades say they do not accurately reflect a school’s performance because schools are too complex to receive one simple grade. When Treasure Mountain Junior High received an “F” grade two years ago, principal Emily Sutherland sent a message to parents saying the grade was an “entirely false and invalid measurement of the teaching and learning that takes place in our building.” Other Park City leaders have said they do not value the grades at all.

The grades are mostly dependent on how well students perform on state standardized tests, and opt-out rates for the exams in the Park City School District are some of the highest in the state. High opt-out rates have skewed the numbers, district officials have said.

Last month, no school grades were given because the Utah Legislature voted to not assign them for 2018. The Utah State Board of Education ranked schools on the five-point scale proposed in H.B. 198 and gave no overall score. Individual indicators, including student achievement, student growth, English learner progress and postsecondary readiness, were given their own score.

Andrew Frink, director of technology and assessment for the Park City School District, was in favor of the school ranking protocol this year because varied factors were taken into account rather than primarily exam scores.

He said the bill is an improvement, but the fact that there is still an overall ranking means there is more work to be done.

“I still think there are challenges in wrapping the entirety of a school into one small label,” he said.

If the current version of the bill passes and the overall rankings stay, he favors the proposed wording rather than the former letter grades. He said it is easier to understand and clearly explains which schools need help.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association and a former librarian at Treasure Mountain Junior High, has said the language of words like “developing” and “critical needs” has a more hopeful connotation compared to an “F” grade. She wants to see letter grades eliminated.

Since the bill received a positive recommendation from the House Education Committee, it will go to the full body for consideration.


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