‘Long overdue’: Utah lawmakers push to end school grading

A bill to eliminate the practice gained initial approval Monday from the House Education Committee.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) North Layton Junior High students, from left, Madelyn Magana, Braedyn Martinez and Jonnathan Chavarria, cut paper circles on Oct. 6, 2022. State lawmakers are looking to get rid of letter grades that are currently assigned to every public school in the state each year.

State lawmakers gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would do away with assigning a single letter grade to each of Utah’s public schools — with several calling the practice outdated and unable to “show the whole picture” of performance.

The same bill has been run in years past but failed to gain enough traction before the session ended. This year, though, it looks better positioned, with 24 legislators from both parties and both the House and Senate signing on as co-sponsors.

Still, the bill likely faces somewhat of a challenge in the Senate, which is currently presided over by Layton Republican Sen. Stuart Adams, an original sponsor of the state’s school grading law.

HB308 comes from Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, who is a public school teacher. He believes the system, first put in place by the Legislature in 2011, hasn’t worked out as intended. Letter grades, he said during a hearing before the House Education Hearing on Monday, are less often a reflection of the quality of a school and more so of other factors, such as a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status or how many kids are in English language learner programs.

The school he teaches at, Salem Hills High School, most recently received an A grade for the school year ending in spring 2022.

“It doesn’t mean they’re perfect,” he said as he explained the example.

There are few students there, Welton noted, who didn’t grow up speaking English as their first language. Meanwhile, Payson High in his district received a C grade and has more students who need assistance learning English and who tend to score lower on standardized tests, which the grades are largely based on. School scores also tended to be impacted by students who opt out of testing.

His bill would end the controversial process of giving an A through F grade to a school each year and gained unanimous support from the committee Monday. It goes next to the full House for consideration.

“It’s long overdue,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who is a retired public school teacher.

School grades have been broadly panned by educators since the practice started. And there have been hiccups in following the program, too.

There was a one-year moratorium on issuing grades in 2018 because the Utah State Board of Education was contracting with a new year-end testing provider. In 2019, glitches with that new system made scores unreliable and so grades were not issued.

There were no standardized exams given in 2020 because of the pandemic, so there was nothing to base scores on in 2021.

Under HB308, schools would instead have a dashboard where parents could find detailed information on how students there are faring in several categories. It would include a look at performance, with percentages of how many students are meeting proficiency levels for testing in math, science and reading. There would be growth scores for how those scores compared to the previous year, too.

The dashboard would additionally include how well high school students perform on the ACT, which assesses college readiness, and the percentage of 12th graders who graduate. And there would be a category for how well a school is addressing the needs of its English language learners.

There would be no overall marks for a school, but each category on the dashboard would be put into the more general descriptions of: exemplary, commendable, typical, developing or critical needs.

“We’re trying to shift the focus from a broad stroke to more meaningful data,” Welton said.

The bill is supported by the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah Education Association and the Utah Schools Board Association.

“Just like one letter grade doesn’t showcase a whole student, it doesn’t show a whole school,” said Linda Hanks, the past president of the Utah School Boards Association and current member of Juab School District’s board.

The state would still assess which schools are performing in the bottom 20% to assist with remediation, Welton said. But overall, the idea is to not oversimplify the work a school is doing and the challenges it may face.

“It’s hard to boil down all the hard work of teachers, students and staff into one letter grade that may not show the whole picture,” added Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo.