Senate panel approves changes to school grading

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 6:31 a.m. MDT

Members of the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would revise the way school grades are calculated. (Shutterstock) Members of the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would revise the way school grades are calculated. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Since lawmakers first adopted a school grading law in 2011, the controversial process of assessing school performance with a single letter grade has undergone frequent revisions.

On Monday, the latest proposed changes cleared their first hurdle as members of the Senate Education Committee approved SB209, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Under the terms of the bill, a school's grade would continue to be based on student performance on year-end testing and graduation rates. But SB209 would allow alternative high schools and new schools to opt out of grading, and would exclude students with severe disabilities from being included in a school's graduation rate calculation.

The bill would also end the practice of assigning schools an automatic F grade for failing to test at least 95 percent of students, a practice that Senate President Wayne Niederhauser has described as "draconian."

"There’s some great things in this, and it will only make the school grading better," Niederhauser said.

While SB209 received unanimous approval from the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, questioned the efficacy of assigning a letter grade without a corresponding investment to help struggling schools.

Jones said she opposed the original bill and continues to oppose the act of grading schools, but she would "hold (her) nose and vote for it" because of the improvements SB209 makes on current law.

"I think these changes makes something that we’re stuck with better than it was before," she said.

During testimony, Jones also asked the bill's sponsor, Adams, what letter grade he would give to his proposed legislation. When Adams demurred, Jones pressed the issue again, asking for a grade on SB209.

"You can grade it, but I’m not going to go there," Adams said.

Many of the changes in SB209 are the result of a working group of education stakeholders that have met throughout the year to address issues with school grading, Adams said. He said the bill largely represents the consensus of that group.

The State School Board has not taken an official position on Adams' bills, but State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martel Menlove on Monday said his office would comply with any changes made to the school assessment law during the current or future legislative sessions.

"We’re committed to providing the very best data possible," Menlove said. "It’s my guess that we’ll probably be back here another year or two or three as we try to get this right."

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