Education committee supports dumping Utah’s school grading law

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) West High students conclude their classes on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Salt Lake City is hosting a listening tour to hear from students and parents about possibly starting school later in the morning.

For the second year in a row, the House Education Committee has unanimously endorsed a bill to do away with the controversial practice of assigning a single letter grade to each of the state’s public schools.

But the bill likely faces an uphill climb in the broader Utah Legislature. A similar effort last year passed in the House but was dead on arrival in the Senate, which is currently presided over by Layton Republican Sen. Stuart Adams, an original sponsor of the state’s school grading law.

Since its creation, the grading program has been broadly condemned by educators and subject to near-constant adjustment in state code. And grading — which is largely based on standardized test scores — was suspended in 2018 as the state switched to a new testing provider.

The repeal legislation, HB175, is sponsored by Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, who told her House colleagues Wednesday that the pause on grading was like “a breath of fresh air” for teachers, who she believes have embraced a more holistic dashboard accountability system developed by the State Board of Education.

That system uses descriptors like “exemplary," “typical” and “critical needs” in lieu of a grade of A, B, C, D, or F, and rates school performance on a range of metrics.

“It allows a better representation, I think, of what’s going on in our schools,” she said.

Supporters of school grading argue that it provides a concise measurement of public school performance that hopefully can improve over time. But critics point to the grades’ correlation to poverty and diversity levels in a school community, and argue that it oversimplifies the challenges and factors faced by educators.

The validity of the grades has also been undermined by high rates of students opting out of testing in some schools, as well as system failures in the state’s computer testing system.

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, referred to the opt-out rates during Wednesday’s committee hearing and suggested that students are unlikely to take testing seriously if the testing is perceived as invalid. And that dynamic extends to school grading, she said, since a school’s rating is dependent on test scores.

“I just think it’s past time that we move on from this experiment and do other things that really make a difference,” Moss said.

Representatives from several education-related organizations testified in favor of Poulson’s bill on Wednesday, including the Utah Parent Teacher Association, the Utah Education Association and the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Tami Pyfer, an education adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, also expressed support for the bill on behalf of the Governor’s Office.

“We’ve worked with the state [school] board for a couple of years now on a more comprehensive system,” Pyfer said.

And Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, told lawmakers that if they asked his organization what single issue they wished was changed in state law, it would be school grading.

“The accountability that was hoped for, frankly, has not occurred,” he said.

HB175 will now move to the full House for consideration.