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A bill to change the way Utah's public schools are graded narrowly passed the House in a 38-36 vote Thursday amid concerns of bills being rushed through the political process.
These grades matter to communities. Young families move into districts where the schools are graded well. People move out of districts where the schools aren't grading well. —Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to change the way Utah's public schools are graded was approved by the Legislature on Thursday after narrowly passing the House in a 38-36 vote amid concerns of bills being rushed through the political process.

A version of SB271 passed the Senate on Monday under a suspension of the rules that removed the requirement for a third reading. The bill was then moved to the final reading calendar of the House without passing through the typical process of a House committee hearing, and Thursday, the final day of the session, a substitute version of SB271 was put in the bill's place.

Later that day, the Senate approved the substitute version of SB271 in an 18-8 vote.

The bill is meant to replace an accountability system created in 2011, which has not yet been fully implemented.

"Teachers are having a hard time trusting us when they're moving down the field and we move the goal posts," Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said during his comments in opposition to the bill.

In 2011, a bill sponsored by now-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser passed the Legislature creating the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, or UCAS. That system rates Utah's schools on a 600-point scale based on high school graduation rates, student proficiency growth, and college and career readiness.

The first UCAS data was released in November, and the first letter grades from the system are expected this fall.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the House sponsor of SB271, said the UCAS grading criteria are insufficient and would lead to most of the state's public schools receiving low or failing grades.

Hughes said SB271 would establish a more representative formula for evaluating schools, with flexibility for those communities with a highly diverse or low-income population.

"Absent this bill, on Aug. 15 you'll see a lot of grades come out that will not be as accurate as I think they could be," Hughes said.

The Utah Board of Education took a position on the original version of SB271 that the bill was unnecessary due to the work still being done on UCAS and Niederhauser's bill. The board was unable to take a position on the substitute version of SB271, due to its presentation late in the session. 

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said he was concerned about the relatively little amount of time educators and lawmakers had to review the substitute bill. Menlove also said he was concerned that lawmakers were taking action to amend a program that was still in its infancy.

"It would be nice if we had some time to provide them with additional data about the decisions that are being made," he said.

Menlove said there are concerns among the education community about evaluating schools based on a single letter grade, in that it fails to provide a holistic view of the unique socioeconomic makeup of a school community. He compared the practice to a scenario where an individual student receives a single grade for their entire academic performance, which would be insufficient for a parent to determine how their child was doing in subjects such math, science or reading.

"We need to be careful about how those grades are viewed and how they are used to make decisions in the future," Menlove said.

Several lawmakers shared that concern. Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, described a school in his district where 31 primary languages are spoken. Hall said the grade for such a school would surely be low due to the literacy challenges, which could lead to families leaving the area and educators being incentivized to abandon challenged schools in favor of areas that grade better.

"These grades matter to communities," he said. "Young families move into districts where the schools are graded well. People move out of districts where the schools aren’t grading well."

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The decision on SB271 came down to the final votes, continuing a trend in the final days of the Legislature where Senate bills dealing with education have struggled to clear the House.

During House debate Wednesday, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, chairman of the House Education Committee, said only seven Senate education bills had passed through his committee, and four committee hearings had to be canceled due to a lack of bills.

"There is a whole host of bills that we have not heard as an education committee," Gibson said.

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com