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Senators gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a pair of bills that adjust Utah's school grading and turnaround programs.

The grading bill, SB220, would end the practice of grading schools on a curve, put more emphasis on student growth and expand performance metrics beyond standardized testing.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said the bill allows for expectations to be set for each letter grade level, allowing any school to receive an A or B independent of the performance of their sister campuses.

"We're trying to address the issue of moving targets," Millner said. "Everybody would really understand where they are and what they need to do to get to the next level."

And SB234, also sponsored by Millner, would amend Utah's turnaround program, which sees private consultants hired to work with the worst-performing 3 percent of schools, based on school grading.

The bill would allow a turnaround school to use a portion of their program funding on teacher retention, and would define success as "statistically significant improvement" compared to the current requirement that a school improve its letter grade or face sanctions or possible closure.

Turnaround status would also be given to schools that are in the bottom 3 percent for two consecutive years, Millner said, in an effort to cut down on turnover as schools drop in and out of the low-performing threshold.

"Those aren't the schools we want to address with this," Millner said.

Utah's school grading law has been changed every year since it was first approved by lawmakers in 2011. And school turnaround was created in 2015, but has faced funding pressure after its first batch of participating schools showed widespread improvement, resulting in a large number of new schools entering the program while contract obligations are pending to private consultants.

Both programs are controversial, with educators arguing that a single letter grade reflects little beyond a campus' socio-economic demographics, and that turnaround demands improvement while diverting funding to outside entities.

Millner said changes are also needed as the Utah Board of Education moves away from SAGE testing in high school toward use of the ACT and its suite of assessments.

The adoption of SAGE testing was met with a spike in the number of families opting out of annual testing, and state law prohibits SAGE scores from being used in a child's course grades.

Millner said those factors have undermined SAGE data, while the ACT is seen as a benefit to students preparing for higher education.

"It wasn't a meaningful assessment for our students and they weren't taking it seriously," Millner said.

Senators voted 19-4 in favor of SB220 and 20-5 in favor of SB234. Both bills require an additional Senate vote before moving to the House for consideration.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he hopes to work with Millner on an amendment to SB234, which would make it easier for families to enroll elsewhere when their schools is added to the turnaround program.

Utah law currently allows children to enroll at any public school with available capacity. But Stephenson alluded to programs in other states that allow enrollment preference and provide busing for children who abandon a failing school.

"The better option would be for the school system to know that when you're designated as a failing school, those children have an opt-out," Stephenson said. "They and their parents have the right to flee a failing school and not wait for government to fix it."

Twitter: @bjaminwood