Lawmakers, educators debate changes to school grading law

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 7:00 p.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Students who are mentally and physically disabled could be excluded from Utah's controversial school grading program if a bill heard in a House committee Friday becomes law.

HB292, sponsored by Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, would exclude a student from the calculation of a school's graduation rate used in school grading if that student is part of an individualized education program, or IEP.

Menlove said she was motivated to sponsor the bill after speaking with a school principal who expressed concern that schools were motivated by school grades to advance students who are otherwise allowed by federal law to remain in high school until their 22nd birthday.

"Kids who have severe disabilities have the right to stay in school," she said. "They’re a very tiny population of students in the state."

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked if the bill could lead to an "IEP avalanche," where schools push struggling students into special education to avoid a failing grade.

Menlove responded that the process of setting up an IEP is based on strict guidelines and involves an array of qualifications, assessments and interventions from professionals.

"It’s a team of people making that decision," she said.

But lawmakers also expressed concern that excluding certain students from the graduation calculation would put the state at odds with the federal graduation rate calculation method.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a unified calculation method that saw graduation rates in many states — including Utah — fall as previously excluded students were incorporated into a four-year cohort.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said Utah already has a history of dealing with conflicting graduation rates, and he worries about moving in that direction again.

"We need to be consistent, using that federal guideline as the true graduation rate," Last said. "I just want to be careful."

Menlove said she has had conversations with individuals in other states who intend to launch a campaign to exclude IEP students from graduation rate calculations at the federal level. But in regards to her bill, she said, it would apply only to the state's calculation of a school's letter grade and not the publicized graduation rate.

"We can do this in terms of our own state grading," Menlove said. "The federal guidelines are another issue."

The House Education Committee voted to advance HB292 with a favorable recommendation to the full House.

In the Senate, a bill sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also seeks to address some of the more controversial elements of the school grading law.

Adams' bill has not yet been made public, but, in a presentation to members of the State School Board on Friday, Adams said the bill would potentially exclude alternative high schools from school grading, adjust the calculation of student performance growth and do away with the so-called "automatic F" that schools receive based on participation.

Currently, if a school fails to test at least 95 percent of its students, the school receives a failing grade independent of the other metrics that go into school grading. Adams said his bill would instead penalize a school by dropping a single letter grade based on participation, which he referred to as the "Viewmont High change" after that school received an F grade last year.

Adams said there are a number of differing opinions, including his own, on how school grading could or should be adapted.

"I’m afraid this may be a permanent employment act for me because I think we’ll be back year after year," he said.

Board members asked Adams about the possibility of allowing a school report card that consists of several letter grades on criteria such as graduation rates, ACT scores and test performance, rather than a single grade.

Adams said the State Office of Education could potentially award grades to the metrics that make up the school grade calculation, but he added that he would oppose adding new grade categories such as attendance to the program.

"When you ask about multiple grades, I wouldn’t be supportive of diluting what is there," Adams said. "If it needs fixing, let's fix it, but I want it crystal clear."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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