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Senate panel clings to school grading despite push to end practice

Published March 3, 2017 10:38 pm

Despite opposing testimony, committee votes to block bill that would end the practice.
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A brewing showdown over school grading may have ended Friday, when the Senate Education Committee voted to stop a bill from reaching the Senate floor that would end the controversial practice of awarding letter grades to schools.

Both the House and Senate have passed legislation aimed at reforming school grading — HB241 and SB220, respectively.

But while both proposals would broaden the performance areas used to measure school quality, HB241 would end the practice of assigning a single letter grade, which is largely based on standardized test scores.

HB241 sponsor Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said that since school grading was created in 2011, the program has created annually shifting targets for educators while revealing little more than the socioeconomic status of the student body.

"School grading has become the labeling or the public shaming of some of our hard-working schools and educators who must work with impoverished populations," Poulson said.

During the Senate committee presentation, Poulson substituted her bill to merge HB241 with SB220, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Anne Millner, R-Ogden.

She praised Millner for her work adjusting the metrics that go into school accountability, but added that without a compromise on letter grading, the opposition by House members — who voted 54-18 for Poulson's bill — could create an impasse this year.

"It seems to be the intent of the House," Poulson said.

Millner did not contribute to the debate, but Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, the architect of Utah's school grading law, spoke in favor of letter grading and moved to table Poulson's bill.

"My encouragement is we get behind Senator Millner's bill and move it forward," Niederhauser said.

That motion came after public testimony in which no one spoke in favor of school grading, while teachers, principals, district superintendents and representatives from various educator and parent groups urged the committee to support Poulson's bill.

LeAnn Wood, education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said that parents have "lost faith" in the grading system.

She described her own children, one a "math whiz" and the other a student who will never reach grade level in math, and said she hates that the schools they attend are being graded based on their test scores.

"There is so much more that makes those schools important," Wood said.

Timpanogos High School principal Joe Jensen said that standardized testing has a place in schools, but scores should not be used as a primary driver of school or student improvement.

"I think the key is to recognize that a one-letter grade carries with it a stereotype that is not accurate, far too often," Jensen said.

And Chelsie Acosta, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, described school grading as a form of segregation.

"It's very difficult to recruit new educators to our Title 1 schools when we're slapped with a grade," she said.

The committee voted 4-1, along party lines, to hold HB241. And Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said it was hypocritical for educators to criticize school grading as unfair when they resist moving away from the traditional grading of student coursework.

"I would say the unfairness there makes [school grading] pale by comparison," he said.

Millner's bill, SB220, passed the Senate in a 21-5 vote on Wednesday. It is not currently scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee on Monday, the committee's final meeting, but would likely reach the House floor without a committee vote.


Twitter: @bjaminwood




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