The House overwhelming voted in favor of a measure Wednesday to stop assigning letter grades to Utah schools each year with lawmakers criticizing the practice as outdated, useless and “a stigma that we don’t need.”
The proposal passed 68-2, but, even still, many were hesitant to declare it a done deal. Support for similar bills in the past have been divided less by party than by legislative body, passing in the House while stalling in the Senate. HB 198 goes there next for consideration.
The bill would do away with the controversial A through F grades that the Legislature voted to put in place in 2011 where the scores for each school were largely based on student performance on standardized tests.
“This system was controversial and rather devastating to some of our rural schools and some of our schools that serve impoverished populations,” said the sponsor, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights. “And there’s no evidence at all that school grading has had any effect on improving student outcomes in the classroom.”
The measure comes after a one-year moratorium where the state was allowed to drop letter grades for 2018 (because the Utah Board of Education was contracting for a new test provider). In its place, the state provided rankings for each school for achievement and growth, the progress of English learners and, for high schools, how well student were prepared for continuing education. There were no overall marks.
The new system used five terms for each category in place of grades: exemplary, commendable, typical, developing or critical needs. The Utah Legislature still defined those as essentially equal to A through F.
But the dashboard model was applauded by teachers and principals and parents for providing more information.
“This system makes us all look deeper,” Poulson said.
If this bill becomes law, a school would receive one overall ranking in addition to the breakdowns for each category. If it doesn’t, the state has mandated a return to regular letter grades next year.
The two lawmakers who voted against the measure — Republican Reps. Cory Maloy and Travis Seegmiller — did not speak to their opposition.
But Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who supported it, said the letter grades created a stigma that surrounded schools that performed poorly; teachers would leave those districts and parents would be concerned about sending their children there. They also created unhealthy competition among schools, Nelson said.
“We tried the experiment. It didn’t work,” he said. “A single letter grade doesn’t do anything. A single letter grade is not an accurate indicator of the quality of a school.”
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, added that the practice “seemed like a good idea at the time” it was passed, but he has since found it to be demeaning. The new model, he suggested, is "a better way to go about it.”
Feb. 4: No more school grades? Utah House committee passes bill that would end the practice.
Utah schools would no longer get a letter grade each year for performance — a system that has been largely criticized for relying too much on test scores and accounting too little for diversity — under a bill that gained committee approval Monday.
“A single letter grade is too simplistic,” said the sponsor, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights. “It doesn’t always tell us what is really going on in the school.”
The bill, HB198, kicked off with the necessary support and a unanimous vote from the House Education Committee. It now goes to the full body for consideration.
But the state had mandated a return to regular grades next year.
“I have to say the change to the system this year was met like a breath of fresh air after years of inversion,” Poulson added. “It forced us to look deeper, to look at the details.”
Though it would be mostly “a semantics change,” Poulson said, many at the committee hearing Monday believe the new terms have more positive connotations and can show the places where schools are excelling.
“An ‘F’ says you’re failing. A ‘critical needs’ say you’re ailing and we need to help this school,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “It’s really important to note that the elimination of school grades results in shift from blaming and shaming, which doesn’t help improvement, to really specific and actionable data.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said, too, that the new rankings “drill down” better. Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, added that there are “flaws in school grading.” And Ashley Anderson, a parent and teacher at Washington Elementary School, say the old system is “a bygone tool.”