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Utah education board wants a special session to resolve school grading

Published June 11, 2013 7:26 pm

Education • Board members want to keep the state's point system instead of new standards with letter grades.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State education officials want a special Legislative session to resolve how Utah schools, and the progress of the more than 680,000 students in them, will be evaluated.

In the waning days of the 2013 session, lawmakers passed a controversial bill that assigns schools a letter grade of A to F, but even Gov. Gary Herbert said at the time the measure would need to be tweaked.

State Board of Education members now are asking lawmakers to consider abandoning that proposal in favor of the existing Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS), which the federal government has already approved Utah using in place of No Child Left Behind.

In simple terms, lawmakers want to hold schools to a higher standard when it comes to student academic growth in a year, explained Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. He expects lawmakers and education officials to come to a compromise in coming weeks, he said.

"It will probably be a hybrid of UCAS and the (school grade) law," he said. "I'm very optimistic we'll come to some agreement."

Herbert's office said Tuesday it had not received the board's request. The legislature's Education Interim Committee is scheduled to discuss school grading next week.

UCAS, designed by the State Office of Education, ranks schools by a point system and schools' first scores under it were released late last year. It gives schools some points for even partial amounts of student academic growth, while the new law sets a minimum bar for growth in order for schools to get points.

Last week, the state board set the standard — which lawmakers required of them — at the 40th percentile. For their growth scores, schools will only get credit for children whose academic growth is in the 40th percentile of Utah students or higher.

But members voted to tell the governor their first preference is amending the new law and keeping UCAS.

The new system, inspired by Florida, gives schools letter grades based on student test scores, or achievement, and how much students learn in a year, or growth.

"It's a complicated formula that creates the (school) grades," said Niederhauser. "In order to get points for growth, I like around 40 to 60 percent."

Advocates, including many state lawmakers, said the change would make school performance clearer to parents.

Opponents, who include many education officials, said grades will oversimplify schools' accomplishments and challenges without doing anything to actually help schools that struggle.

"In the first place, I am not a supporter of grading schools, believing it has few values and will be harmful," Kim Burningham, a member of the Board of Education, wrote in a email. "However, the Utah Legislature has passed legislation requiring that schools be graded."

Added state board member Dixie Allen: "I had thought that we had the support of all to move to the current UCAS system, which has been supported by the federal government and our educational partners. It is the hope of most in the educational community that the legislature will understand this need and help us insure that we measure school performance on the performance of all students, as measured by their growth in the major subjects."

State board member Tami Pyfer said she sees grading schools as a continuation of the "failed" policies under No Child Left Behind, emphasizing high stakes testing and a narrowing of the curriculum — overemphasizing the subjects tested at the expense of other areas such as social studies, art, or music.

"In this regard, school grading is just Utah's mini-version of No Child Left Behind," Pyfer said.

Rparker@sltrib.com

Twitter@RayUtah