Lawmakers discuss possible tweaks to controversial school grading law

Published: Wednesday, June 19 2013 3:09 p.m. MDT

Members of the Education Interim Committee discussed updates and potential changes to the state's school grading law, which has undergone several changes and generated vocal opposition since its passage in 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public schools are scheduled to receive their first letter grades this September, but lawmakers and educators continue to debate exactly how those grades should be calculated.

The original school grading law — which assigns an A, B, C, D or F to schools based on student proficiency and improvement — was sponsored in 2011 by now-Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

Since its passage, the law has been amended twice in subsequent legislative sessions, including a late-hour SB271 that passed the House in a narrow 38-36 vote in February.

But no version of the law has aligned with an accountability system developed by the State Office of Education that similarly rates schools based on proficiency and growth and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education as part of Utah's waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

State School Board members have made clear their preference for the state office's accountability system, commonly known as UCAS, but have also indicated they intend to comply with the law passed by the Legislature.

"We will not issue grades with UCAS. We will not have two grading systems, and that was never our intent," State Superintendent Martell Menlove told members of the Education Interim Committee on Wednesday. "Grades will be issued according to (SB)271 as the data is available and within the timeline."

Testifying before the committee, Niederhauser said a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system is necessary for teachers and administrators to focus their efforts, for parents to understand what's happening at their children's schools, and for lawmakers to make substantive policy changes.

He said the grading system would raise the attention of how schools are performing and help focus minds on how to make improvements.

"The school grading system is not an indictment on teachers. It’s not an indictment on any specific group," Niederhauser said. "It's an indictment on all of us, on the Legislature, on the businesses in the community and on the parents. But at least, at this point, we’re beginning to have the discussion and owning where our schools are."

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said other states that have adopted school grading have also infused schools with new funds to help underperforming students. Jones suggested there is little point in measuring school performance if Utah lawmakers are not prepared to lend financial and policy support to failing schools.

"It’s all well and good to measure," she said, "but what do we do with those kids who are struggling?"

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said that even without new funding, it's important to let parents, teachers, students and the community know how schools are doing.

"If we’re not measuring something, then we have no chance of improving it," Urquhart said. "A school can only start to go forward if it knows exactly where it is compared to other institutions inside and outside the state."

Lawmakers also discussed how the grading standards should be set and whether the calculations should be made on a curve, in which a normal distribution is artificially produced by grouping schools in the B- and C-grade range with an equal number of failing and high-performing marks.

Kory Holdaway, government relations director for the Utah Education Association, urged lawmakers to not focus on a bell curve calculation, as it would require some schools to be labeled as failing even if the state improves as a whole.

"The question I would ask is: Don’t we want all of our schools to be high-performing schools?" Holdaway said. "If so. the artificial bell curve model isn’t something we should be striving for."

He also said the UEA has some concerns with the current version of the law, SB271, but that he was confident those concerns could be resolved in further discussions with education officials and lawmakers.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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