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Issue: Grading Schools

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Bill to repair flawed school accountability system passes the Utah House – March 7, 2017

A bill (Senate Bill 220) to improve Utah’s broken school accountability system passed the House on a vote of 56-18 and now goes to the Governor for signature. The bill includes many improvements such as reporting a “dashboard” of school indicators and removing the requirement that only a limited number of schools be allowed to achieve a grade of A or B…replacing it with a criteria setting process to set “performance thresholds” for each school grade. It also eliminates the use of SAGE tests in high school and instead requires ACT and ACT Aspire assessments for high school students.

An amendment on the House floor eliminated the requirement to assign a school grade for the 2017-18 school year only.
 However, the bill continues to mandate the use of a single letter grade to report school performance beyond 2017-18. A substitute bill that would have stripped the letter-grade requirement failed in the House on a vote of 27-45
The UEA supports SB220’s modifications to the accountability system, but remains opposed to assigning schools a single letter grade.

UEA’s Position on Grading Schools

It is time to end the failed policy of school grading. The UEA supports creating an accountability dashboard, creating school performance thresholds and many other provisions in SB220, but recommends amending the bill to eliminate the use of individual school grades to define a school’s performance.

Problems with the policy of grading schools include:

  • It oversimplifies the complex work of a school by reducing all elements of a school community to a single letter grade. This decreases, not increases, transparency.
  • It overemphasizes measures like student performance on a standardized test and doesn’t represent the breadth of programs that a school provides.
  • The Legislature has changed the school grading system every single year since it was adopted in 2011. This has resulted in a constantly moving target that is demoralizing to students, parents and educators and is confusing to the public.
  • Continuing to label schools with a letter grade does not address the perception of school grading as unfair. This may exacerbate the difficulty of attracting and retaining teachers in high-needs schools during a time of teacher shortage.
  • It does not accurately reflect outside challenges a school may face such as high levels of poverty, high student turnover rates, numbers of English language learners and students in special education programs.

Utah School Grading Background

Legislation passed in 2011 required measuring both student proficiency and growth in assigning schools a letter grade, but also allowed the Utah State Board of Education flexibility to develop a more comprehensive model. The result was the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS) that was implemented in 2012 and was used for federal No Child Left Behind reporting as well as school performance reporting.

The 2013 Legislature passed Senate Bill 271: School Grading Amendments. This legislation added a second accountability grading system to that already being implemented under legislation passed in 2011. Many public education stakeholders, including the UEA, PTA, Utah School Boards Association and Utah Superintendents Association, opposed SB271 and urged Governor Herbert to veto it. These groups continue to oppose a single grade for schools.

The first school grades calculated under the new law were publicly released Sept. 3, 2013. The 2013 UCAS report was released Sept. 30, 2013.

In 2015, because proficiency rates dropped significantly due to the more rigorous SAGE assessment administered in 2014, existing requirements for school grades would have resulted in many more D and F schools. Therefore, the Legislature directed the State Office of Education to alter the calculation of grades by adjusting cut scores such that the distribution of grades for the 2013-14 school year is similar to the distribution of grades for the prior year. While individual schools will not necessarily receive the same grade as last year, this will result in approximately the same number of A’s, B’s and so on across the state. (See more about SAGE.)

Again in 2016 the Legislature adjusted grades, this time downwards because too many schools achieved A and B grades. The law requires that no more than 20% of schools can receive an A or B grade.

UEA opposes school grading as oversimplifying the complex operations of schools. UEA also opposed the 2014 and 2015 temporary adjustments because they artificially generate a school grade based only on the grade distribution from last year, makes year-to-year comparisons inaccurate and unreliable and does not resolve larger issues of creating a valid and reliable school accountability system.