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A bill laying out a system for grading Utah schools earned final passage Thursday, despite concerns about the measure's late timing and its meaning for schools.
SB271 passed through the Senate on a vote of 18-8 after it squeaked through the House with a vote of 38-36. The bill will now go to the governor for his signature.
The bill would mandate a specific system for assigning schools grades of A-F next school year, but it proposes a different plan than the one state education leaders have been working on since original school grading legislation was signed into law in 2011.
Education leaders have criticized the bill in recent weeks, saying it would mean grades of C, D and F for most schools. They've also said it would result in two systems imposed on Utah schools, because the system they've been developing has already been approved by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the state's waiver to No Child Left Behind.
But House bill sponsor Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Thursday a new version of the bill was a "consensus" bill, agreed upon by lawmakers and education leaders. "I think you will see a better reflection of the grades of schools with this bill," Hughes said.
Judy Park, state associate superintendent, said after the debate it's true that the State Office of Education no longer opposes the bill. But she said she doesn't yet know what kinds of grades it would mean for schools. And she said two grading systems would still be required, unless the feds gave Utah permission to use the one designed by lawmakers in place of the one state education leaders created.
She said the State Office of Education is committed to supporting whatever lawmakers pass, but the timing of the bill has made it difficult for everyone to understand. The bill wasn't publicly released until two weeks ago and has gone through many changes since then.
"When you look at the timing in the legislature and the short time anyone in the legislature would have to study the issue, certainly I think there's not been adequate time for legislators to be fully informed or understanding of the bill," Park said.
Patti Harrington, with the Utah School Boards and Utah School Superintendents Association, said those groups oppose the bill despite assertions otherwise on the House floor Thursday. She wondered whether lawmakers understood when they passed it that they may confuse schools and parents by setting up a second grading system. Plus, she said, it's a complex bill that should have been given more consideration.
"The process is broken," Harrington said. "It wasn't vetted by legislators, they didn't even see it until the last minute, it wasn't vetted by educators … and it wasn't vetted by schools or parents or citizens."
A number of lawmakers also expressed frustration Thursday with the bill's timing.
"I don't like seeing these very difficult and complex issues coming up so late in the session without the chance to be vetted," said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.
Much of the House debate on Thursday also centered around the need for a letter grading system in general, despite the fact that the grading was passed into law two years ago and SB271 merely outlines the specifics of how it should work.
Several lawmakers who were teachers criticized the idea, saying they don't see how schools that face challenges such as large numbers of English learners and special needs students can be fairly assigned letter grades.
"We ought to be passing bills to promote what teachers strive to do every day," said Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "Let's try supporting them for a change instead of punishing them."
Still, Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said, "What you don't measure you can't ever make improvements to, because you don't know where you are."
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, also spoke about the importance of measuring school success. "If it isn't measured, it doesn't matter," Eliason said. "Quality schools matter."
Bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, noted that the bill actually gives schools more ability to earn As and Bs by lowering the percentage of total possible points they must hit to get an A to 80 percent from 90 percent. He and others noted that without the bill, schools might actually have a tougher time earning lofty grades because of standards set into the original law two years ago.
"The template we passed two years ago, if implemented … I think would be punitive," Hughes said.