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Kent Larsen was ready to celebrate last week after checking the new school grades for South Sanpete School District, where he works as superintendent.
"Gosh, I was tickled," Larsen said. "I have seven schools and three of them had A's. The rest had B's."
But his celebratory mood was short-lived.
When Larsen checked the grades again one day later, he said, the district had been downgraded to a single A grade, several B grades and one C grade.
The shift is the result of tweaks to Utah's school-grading law, approved by legislators this year. When two-thirds of Utah schools earn either an A or B grade, the law requires a 5-percentage-point jump in the minimum score for each grade level.
That translates to a drop in letter grades in years like 2016 when too many schools reach the targets for a good grade.
"We'd get hung by parents if we did that," Larsen said.
School grades are to be released statewide on Thursday, but local administrators were given advance access to both preliminary and final results.
The grades are primarily based on year-end test scores, with schools awarded points for the number of students meeting grade-level expectations and making academic progress each year. High schools also receive points based on ACT scores and graduation rates.
Several administrators told The Salt Lake Tribune that there was no warning the shift in requirements would be applied retroactively to this year's scores. And Wasatch Junior High Principal John Anderson said he only learned that his school's grade had fallen from an A to a B when he was contacted for a Tribune interview.
"It's confusing and it's disappointing that they come out with a grade and then they change it," he said.
Anderson said he understands the desire to increase performance benchmarks as performance improves. But changes should be applied to the next school year, he said, rather than moving the finish line educators have been working toward.
State school board Chairman David Crandall said the new law represents a compromise, as earlier versions of the bill called for grade requirements to increase each year independent of school performance.
And failure to pass a law in March, he said, would have led to grade benchmarks reverting to years-old and effectively unattainable levels.
"I completely understand the frustration," he said. "We're in the situation where we have to follow the law that passed. That's what we're doing."
He said the law is clear that a change in grading criteria is meant to affect the current year's scores, rather than set a new standard moving forward. And if the grading scale has to change, he said, it's better to do it sooner rather than later.
Larsen said he plans to continue using the original grades his district received, because those represent the targets teachers and administrators were shooting for.
"They worked their butts off," he said. "All our scores went up, which is a good thing."
He said he doesn't fault members of the Utah Board of Education, who have worked to develop and improve Utah's testing system and who are responding to laws written by legislators. But he'd like to see school grades abandoned, or at least altered to better reflect school performance and not create a moving target for teachers.
Data from school grading, Larsen said, is of no use to educators working to help students succeed. "I think it doesn't do anything to help improve schools," he said. "[Teachers] don't need a shaming tool like a grade to make them do better."
Utah's school grades will be released to the public on Thursday through the Data Gateway page on the Utah State Board of Education website.