A bill before the Legislature aims to clear up such confusion.
In coming weeks, lawmakers will debate a measure inspired by Florida's system that would give Utah schools letter grades based on students' academic achievement. Advocates say the change would make school performance clearer to parents. Opponents, however, say grades would oversimplify schools' accomplishments and challenges without doing anything to actually help schools that struggle.
"That letter grade, that will reveal to the community and Legislature what the students' performance is in that school," said Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, sponsor of the bill, SB59. "We then can take steps as a Legislature, as community members, and help improve that."
Some state education leaders, however, say assigning grades to schools won't necessarily improve them.
The state's current U-PASS system, for example, takes many factors into account. It measures attendance, test-taking participation, and progress and proficiency among groups of students and all students in math, language arts and science. The federal system judges schools in 40 categories to determine whether they pass or fail.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association said schools already use the measures in place to help drive improvement.
"One grade is less transparent actually than multiple grades," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "We want parents to really know where their schools need to improve."
Should Utah follow Florida? • Many teachers are wary of the idea.
Liz Buirley, a language arts teacher at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, said she'd rather see student test results used to decide where to direct more resources and training.
Rob Gardner, a history and geography teacher at Highland High, said "it's pretty simplistic and gives one snapshot, one letter for comprehensive high schools or other schools that are very diverse."
Niederhauser first announced his plan to grade schools in August, amid a visit by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
During that visit, Bush touted grading as a reform that helped boost student achievement in the Sunshine State. Bush said the grading system was "traumatic to begin with but was the right thing to do because no one wanted their child in a D school.
"The net result was that everybody started to focus on student learning as the organizing principle of the schools because we graded schools based completely on student learning."
Some point to Florida's student achievement as proof that it works. In 2009, 73 percent of Florida fourth-graders tested at or above basic in reading compared with 67 percent in Utah, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida's Latino fourth-graders alone outperformed Utah fourth-graders of all races combined in reading.
Since 1992, the percentage of fourth-graders reading at or above basic level in Florida has swelled dramatically. In Utah, the percentage has stayed the same.
Those statistics have been repeated often in the debate over school grading in Utah.
"I don't think there's any question that it's been effective there," said Niederhauser, who worked on the bill with Parents for Choice in Education (PCE). Judi Clark, PCE executive director, said Florida's progress is worthy of Utah's attention.
But not everyone is sold.
Some Utah education leaders, including state school board member Kim Burningham, wonder if the reason Florida's fourth-graders do so well on reading tests is because Florida holds back third-graders who can't read on grade level.
And Florida actually lags Utah on other achievement measures. Burningham recently laid out all the statistics before the state school board.
Utah had a higher high school graduation rate at 74.3 percent compared with Florida's 66.9 percent in 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Utah also beats Florida on performance on the ACT college entrance exam. Similar percentages of students in each state take the exam, but Utah students earned an average overall score of 21.8 in 2010 compared with Florida's 19.5.
"I'm not a true believer in the Florida miracle," state school board member Dave Thomas said. "For me, the bottom line is always the college and career readiness test. ... That's the best judge you have on how your system is doing, and Florida's not doing very well."
Critics also say grading was just one of many Florida reforms that might have led to higher reading scores.
Florida also doled out rewards and consequences for grades; increased graduation requirements; expanded school choice through charter schools, corporate tax credit scholarships and vouchers; and limited class sizes.
Florida spent $9,084 per pupil in fiscal year 2008, compared with $5,978 per student in Utah, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"They really accompanied reforms with a lot of money," Burningham said.
Parents have mixed feelings • Niederhauser, however, says his plan to grade schools isn't about copying Florida; it's about transparency.
And he has some powerful lawmakers on his side, such as Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
"Most citizens are unaware of the performance of their schools," Stephenson said. "They have some general notion based on things that have been said by the school or by others, but they don't really know how their school measures up. Grading schools would take away that uncertainty."
Some parents agree.
Bryant Middle School parent Russell Erskine said he'd give his school, on a scale of one to 10, "a nine, probably." But he's not familiar with U-PASS or federal measures of school performance. To him, a grading system would make sense.
"If you do a good job, you get an A. If you do a bad job, you get an F, just like kids that get graded," Erskine said.
Other parents, however, worry about how grades might affect schools and kids.
Jessica Kaneen, chairwoman of the Oakcrest Elementary School Community Council, said the data are already out there for parents who want to get involved. She worries poor grades will drive parents away from schools rather than inspire parents to improve schools.
The public schools "need more parents to stand up for what their kids need ... and I don't know necessarily that a bill is going to be that answer," she said.
Jolynne Alger, an Eastlake Elementary parent who created the Facebook group Jordan District for Quality Education, said she'd pull her first-grader out of a school if it got a poor grade.
"Is that really the intent behind this, to break down the public schools so badly we're going to all be screaming for private schools and charters?" she wondered. She also worries about the message a poor school grade sends to a child.
"What does that tell that student?" she asked. " 'OK, I go to a loser school. I'm a loser child.' What kind of message is that to a child, especially because a child has absolutely no control over that."
But Machon, the parent who enrolled his daughter at Bryant, says he'd welcome a clear grading system.
"Regular people and regular communities will understand it easier," he said.
How would school grading work?
SB59 would assign schools letter grades of A through F, based on student achievement. Grades would be based, as measured by state tests, on students' achievement in math, language arts and science; progress in math and language arts; and how much progress the lowest-performing 25 percent of students in a school made in those subjects. Graduation rates would be factored in as well for high schools.
If 80 percent of all Utah schools qualified for A's or B's in a given year, the state school board would have to increase the percentage needed to get each grade. The bill has passed a Senate committee.