Jordan Allred, Deseret News
With the state's new school report card or dashboard a work in progress, Utah State Board of Education staff asked lawmakers Wednesday for suggestions for alternatives to letter grades so constituents get an accurate picture of academic progress of Utah schools.

SALT LAKE CITY — With the state's new school report card or dashboard a work in progress, Utah State Board of Education staff asked lawmakers Wednesday for suggestions for alternatives to letter grades so constituents get an accurate picture of academic progress of Utah schools.

The Utah State Board of Education has suspended assigning letter grades to schools for one year while the public school system transitions to new statewide tests and state education leaders develop a results-based accountability system.

Absent grades, state education administrators are attempting to develop a report card of accessible, meaningful indicators. After a year's moratorium, the board could return to letter grades given the current design of the new report card or use some other indicator, such as stars, to show how a school performs in terms of student achievement, academic growth, equity and proficiency of English language learners.

One option is using points on a scale of 0-900, with schools scoring 617 to 900 deemed top performers or schools that score 400 or less considered those with critical needs.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said he understands that many educators chafe at assigning letter grades to schools.

"Is it just the ABCs that stresses everybody out? It seems to me, you're talking about the exactly the same thing by a different name," Last said.

Nationwide, states take several different approaches to school ratings, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit education think tank.

Thirteen states use letter grades, while 11 use a descriptive rating such as "needs improvement, average, good, great, excellent," according to the commission. Twelve states use index rating such as 1-100, while four states and the District of Columbia use stars ranking schools 1-5.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, said as a former educator, he considers letter grades for schools "insulting."

During the 2017 General Session, he successfully amended legislation that called for the new statewide school accountability report to forego letter grades for one year as new testing programs are implemented.

Owens said it has been particularly frustrating when parents allow their children to opt out of statewide testing programs and "that affects your overall grade and defines who you are."

Owens said he appreciates the latest version of the accountability report, which places more weight on achievement growth and tracks the proficiency of English learners among other indicators.

"That tells me a lot more about a school and where I can improve in a variety of areas. It think it says a lot more to our parents and our whole education community. When we just put one letter grade on the whole school I think it can sometimes be demeaning when you don't have any control over some of those things," Owens said.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, also questioned how the State School Board will address the growing numbers of students who opt out of statewide testing, which is permitted by state law.

"What are you going to do to lessen the effect? It's just a growing number. I see it in schools in my district that are the highest-performing kids," Moss said.

Some schools went down a full letter grade because of reduced participation by students in testing and "it's skewing the results. How are we going to handle this?" she asked.

Darin Nielsen, assistant superintendent of student learning, said preliminary data suggests there were slightly fewer opt outs on the most recent year of testing, although the opt-out rate statewide will likely be about 5 percent of students.

"For this coming year, the fact that there's no overall grade on the report card, that resolves the concern for a year, temporarily. As a state board, we'll have to continue to work on a more long-term solution or solutions to that challenge," he said.

Testing provides valuable information "and right now, a lot of people don't think it's valuable for any purpose," said Moss, a retired teacher.

Nielsen said the upcoming changes in statewide assessments provide an opportunity "to communicate about those changes and also the value that statewide assessments provide to the community as a whole for transparency as we see on the report card. The less reliable our data is, the less reliability we have on our report card," which communities use to guide instructional, program and funding decisions.

The issue of students opting out of statewide testing is a "multi-prong" challenge, Nielsen said.

"The state board is doing the things within their power to address that," he said.

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Starting with the 2018-19 school year, students in grades 9 and 10 will be tested using the Utah Aspire Plus test.

Earlier this year, the State School Board approved a contract with Questar Assessment Inc. for testing grades 3-8 after the existing contract for SAGE (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) expired. Eleventh graders will continue to take the ACT.

Tiffany Stanley, chief of staff for the Utah State Board of Education, said the board plans to address the school report card again in September.