Utah guv signs controversial school grading bill despite questions
Education • Law might still be changed in coming months.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Gov. Gary Herbert signed a controversial bill Wednesday to change the way schools will be graded, though he acknowledged it may have some problems and need to be altered again in coming months.

"I wholeheartedly support school grading, as it is important for parents and teachers to have information about individual schools, and I support the concept behind SB271," Herbert said of the bill in a statement Wednesday. "However, there may be some problems with the bill's formula. We will allow a month or so to obtain modeling outcomes and data, and then stakeholders will work together to resolve any inadequacies in a timely way."

Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the state plans to work with education leaders to try out the new grading system. If they find problems with it, they may work to change it, potentially in a special session.

Since the end of the legislative session, the governor's office has received 1,284 e-mails, calls and letters about the bill, 98 percent of which were against it.

The newly signed law lays out how Utah schools should be graded starting this year, but it mandates a different system from the one the State Office of Education has been working on since the original school grading law passed in 2011.

Opponents of the bill argued it didn't measure academic growth as fairly as UCAS, the system designed by the State Office of Education, and that it passed amid confusion caused by its introduction late in the session. They said it could result in the state having two grading systems.

Supporters, however, said they didn't believe it would create a second system and believed it would more fairly hold schools accountable. They said it was needed to make sure schools weren't given overly harsh grades based on the system laid out in the original law two years ago, since UCAS was never actually put into law.

"I think it was really important that the Legislature ensured equity and accountability," said Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, which worked on the bill with lawmakers, "and SB271 ensures that schools will be rewarded for making a year's worth of progress in a year's worth of time."

In recent weeks, Parents for Choice sent out a number of emails asking Utahns to contact the governor to show support.

The Utah Education Association (UEA) also asked its members in recent weeks to contact the governor, but to voice opposition.

UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said because the version of the bill Herbert signed didn't come out until the last day of the legislative session, many had difficulty understanding what it would mean for schools.

Plus, she said, the new law only gives schools credit for individual student academic growth if a student makes a full year's worth of growth, whereas UCAS gives schools partial credit for even partial amounts of academic growth over a year. She said that all-or-nothing approach in the new law could be a problem for schools serving students with challenges.

"Oftentimes, there is not a year's worth of growth through no fault of the teacher but because of outside conditions," she said.

She said she's hopeful, however, that lawmakers will work with education leaders over the next year to address concerns.

State Superintendent Martell Menlove said Wednesday said he believes the new law will allow education leaders to establish a school grading system somewhat reflective of UCAS. Though schools will only get credit for a full year of growth, it will be up to the state school board to define a full year of growth.

He said once the board sets that criteria, it will be easier to say what the new law will mean for schools, in terms of the grades they will receive.

It's still unclear whether the new law will mean a second grading system. If the new system is similar to UCAS, the state might be able to just have one grading system, Menlove said. But if it's drastically different and stays in place, the state might have to use both, as the federal government has already approved the state's use of UCAS in place of No Child Left Behind.

Last month, the state school board decided not to ask the governor to veto SB271, after splitting on the matter.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker