Showdown brewing over Utah’s school grading law

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights asks a question during a Health Reform Task Force meeting in the state Capitol, Oct. 6, 2015.

On Tuesday morning, shortly after watching a panel of Utah senators gut her legislation on school grading, Rep. Marie Poulson stood on the House floor and read a quote from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to her intern.

“Real courage,” the Cottonwood Heights Democrat said, “is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

The quote is steeped in the language of defeat, but Poulson is gearing up for a fight.

Last month, her bill to end the controversial practice of assigning a letter grade to each of Utah’s public schools — largely based on standardized test scores — passed out of the House with unanimous support.

But the Senate has passed its own school grading bill unanimously, SB119, which instead pauses the issuance of grades for a single school year after widespread testing glitches made the program unworkable.

And on Tuesday, members of a Senate committee replaced Poulson’s repeal legislation, HB175, with the one-year pause at the urging of Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who was one of the original sponsors of Utah’s school grading law. The 6-2 vote to swap out the bill broke down along partisan lines.

“As taxpayers and parents, we need to know how well our local schools are doing as we find ways to make improvements,” Adams said. “I believe it’s prudent to step back for a year and carefully review school grading.”

Poulson said Tuesday that she intends to respond in kind. If or when the Senate bill reaches the House, Poulson will move to replace it with her version of the legislation, which her fellow representatives have already voted to support.

“We listen to the Realtors, we listen to the cities and towns,” Poulson said. “But for some reason, we don’t pay attention to stakeholders in education. This is something that they really want, and that’s why I’ve been fighting this battle for the last few years.”

Utah’s school grading law was enacted in 2011 and has been a point of contention in education circles since its inception, with teachers and parents groups arguing that it unfairly characterizes diverse and low-income communities.

The law sees school performance reduced to a single letter grade of A, B, C, D or F and has been subject to near-constant amendment in state code to fix design flaws and respond to criticism.

The law also has seen greater support in the Senate than the House since its initial passage, with the chambers regularly disagreeing on what to do with grading and the House voting in multiple legislative sessions to repeal the program outright.

Utah’s state school board has developed an alternative accountability system in recent years, colloquially known as the “dashboard,” which rates schools on a broader variety of categories with adjectives like “exemplary” and “typical” used in place of letter grades.

Under Poulson’s bill, the dashboard would remain as the state’s primary school accountability tool.

“[Grading] is driving teachers out of the classroom," Poulson said, "because there’s a difference between getting an F and having a critical needs school. That dashboard system is a great compromise.”

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, Poulson’s bill was supported — and Adams’ substitute was opposed — by representatives of the Utah Education Association, the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the Utah Parent Teacher Association and the state’s school boards and school superintendents associations. In a previous committee hearing, Gov. Gary Herbert’s education adviser spoke in support of repealing school grading on behalf of the governor’s office.

Poulson offered the example of ostensibly failing schools that serve homeless shelters or large numbers of refugee families. A single letter grade, she said, doesn’t recognize the academic strides those children and their teachers are making.

“If they want to be fair,” she said, “they need to change the system.”

Asked about the Senate’s reluctance to abandon the program, Poulson responded only that there are “people” in that chamber who are invested in a 10-year-old law. But the law has not accomplished its goals, she said, and is harming teacher morale.

“School grading was supposed to make it simple for parents,” she said. “The parents want it changed, so who are we doing it for?”

Adams said he is impressed with the dashboard system, but that he’d prefer a final decision on grading be delayed for a year in order to allow for a review of both accountability systems. He said grading has highlighted areas of the states where students are struggling, and suggested that everyone is united in a common goal of improving performance.

“I don’t think any of us want to do damage,” Adams said. “All of us want to lift.”