Utah lawmakers have killed school grades. What does that mean for your school?

The Legislature has passed a bill to end the practice of assigning letter grades to each public school based largely on test scores.

After roughly a decade of assigning letter grades to each public K-12 school in the state, Utah lawmakers agreed Thursday that system itself should get an F for failing to accurately show the nuance within education.

And now they are doing away with it.

HB308, a bill to stop giving Utah schools an A through F score ranking how well they perform, passed the Senate unanimously. It previously passed in the House unanimously, too, though it will return there to concur with some minor amendments before moving to the governor for a final signature.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton and Senate sponsor of HB308, said the scores put a burden on schools and were not ultimately helpful.

“There are certain things we’ve imposed upon the public school system that we need to alleviate,” he said.

The effort to do away with the grading for school performance has been years in the making and has been prompted by several recent years where grades could not be assigned — because of the pandemic, faulty year-end testing and other interruptions.

Educators had also long believed that the grades didn’t show actual strengths or weaknesses, but rather reflected challenges a school faced based on demographics. Schools with higher populations of English language learners or those with more students in lower socioeconomic households often are awarded lower grades, noted Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights and an educator in Granite School District.

“The letter grade was punitive,” Riebe said.

Even Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, voted in favor of the bill. Adams was the original sponsor of the state’s school grading law in 2011 and had previously opposed efforts to overturn that.

There was some initial confusion Thursday, though, as to what will replace school grades to keep parents informed and for the state to be transparent about concerns with a school. These are the efforts that will move forward to provide accountability:

A dashboard

When state lawmakers agreed to pause school grades for a one-year hiatus a few years ago, the Utah State Board of Education was tasked with coming up with an alternate system to still provide a look inside a school’s performance.

What it came up with was a dashboard that showed detailed information on how students were faring in several categories.

That included a look at how many students were meeting proficiency levels for testing in math, science and reading. There were growth marks for how those scores compared to the previous year, too.

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

That more nuanced breakdown replaced the single letter grade and quickly gained favor.

Going forward, it is most likely that’s how the state will continue to provide information on schools to parents.

That’s not expressly written into the bill, which caused some concern for Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

“School choice will replace need for that kind of transparency,” countered Sandall, suggesting parents have the option in Utah to take their children to any school they want, even if it’s outside the boundaries where they live.

“But in order to choose, parents need information,” Fillmore said.

Sandall and others encouraged parents to talk to their neighbors about what schools are best.

Fillmore added: “I think the school grade was the wrong kind of information. It didn’t give parents an accurate picture of what was going on in the school. But if we’re removing all disclosure, that concerns me a little.”

Fillmore had run a similar bill for the past three sessions to get rid of school grades. His included wording that the dashboard system would replace that measurement.

The dashboard, though, is run independently by the Utah State Board of Education, which has given no indication that it will not continue to provide and update it. And the bill doesn’t dismantle that, Sandall said. It also has a line that says a measurement and report on each school will continue in some form.

Riebe said to her that means the dashboard, but she said lawmakers can clarify that next year, if needed.

School comparisons

Another bill passed this session would require the state school board to create a program where parents can compare the merits of different schools.

Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, sponsored HB249, which also passed the House and Senate unanimously.

The measure requires the state school board to have a parent portal that lists, among other things, each public school’s: resources for those who are bullied, mental health programs, how to file a grievance and options to change enrollment.

The portal will also include the option to compare two schools, with measures on performance and other data. And a newly hired parent engagement specialist will help manage that and work with parents about any concerns.

During a debate last month, Peterson said: “We want parents to know what’s going on in schools.”