Senator pitches grading Utah schools bill to Education Excellence Commission

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 1:53 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY— What some educators see as a lack of communication, Sen. Wayne Niederhauser sees as a lack of transparency.

Niederhauser, R-Sandy, appeared before the Governor's Education Excellence Commission at the Capitol last week to pitch a bill he's drafting that would assign schools a letter grade — A, B, C, D, F — based on how well students perform on the standardized tests they take annually.

"We have to focus on student achievement," the Senate majority whip said. "We need to start with this now without delay."

Niederhauser presented details of his proposal to the State Board of Education at its meeting earlier this month. At that time, some board members expressed concern that Niederhauser's system oversimplifies how well or poorly schools are doing. They also said it's not a good time to implement the system because the state is in the middle of a curriculum overhaul.

Larry Shumway, state superintendent and member of the governor's commission, said that with the exception of giving schools a letter grade, the state currently has the kind of system the senator is suggesting.

"I guess I feel like you're copying our report," Shumway said.

Judy Park, state associate superintendent for data, assessment and accountability, walked the commission through the state's U-PASS reports, which rate proficiency and progress for schools in language arts, math, science, and attendance. Park said that if the Legislature passes Niederhauser's bill, she would like to see the new grading system built upon the current system.

Gov. Gary Herbert agreed, saying the various entities can work together to achieve their goals by assigning letter grades based on the data the State Office of Education currently uses.

"Maybe having multiple grades is better than just having one grade," Herbert said.

Park also said it's likely that constituents aren't dissatisfied with U-PASS, they just don't know about it.

"This isn't about transparency, it's about communication," Park said.

Niederhauser said his bill is based on a Florida concept that former Gov. Jeb Bush touted in Utah last year. Since parents could easily understand how their schools were faring, they were more likely to get involved in making their schools great, he said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, echoed that point.

"When they assigned a letter grade, it was like a neon sign on the school building," Stephenson said.

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

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