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School testing, accountability bill moves forward despite concerns about letter grades

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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite pleas from educators, the Utah PTA and some House Education Committee members to drop letter grades for schools from a proposed student testing and school accountability initiative, the committee voted Monday to advance the bill to the House.

While many people who addressed the latest version of SB220 noted it was a substantial improvement over the current process, letter grades for schools remain a sticking point.

"If you pass this bill out, will one of you be brave enough to take out the school grades?" asked LeAnn Wood, education commissioner for the Utah PTA.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who has worked extensively with the Utah State Board of Education and other stakeholders on the school accountability and student assessment initiative, said SB220 makes many improvements over the current system.

For one, SAGE testing in high school would be replaced with ACT Aspire. This should help address large numbers of students who are opting out of SAGE tests.

High school students tend to take the ACT test more seriously and results will be more meaningful on the whole, said Millner, former president of Weber State University.

New school accountability measures will also focus on growth in academic achievement and are intended to be "ZIP code neutral," she said.

"We want all of our students to be better," Millner said. "I think this rebalances our system."

The legislation establishes two metrics: one for elementary and middle schools, and a second for high schools.

The elementary/middle school metric awards points according to the percent of students who score proficient or above on a statewide test; academic growth; academic growth of the school's lowest performing quartile; and progress of English learners.

The high school metric awards points based on the four measurements of younger students but also takes into consideration school graduation rates; students who score 18 and higher on the ACT; and the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or advanced career and technical education courses.

Plans call for an open dashboard so the public can see how schools fare with respect to these indicators.

While many aspects of SB220 are widely considered improvements, some argue continuing to issue letter grades for schools is demoralizing and can be misleading.

"We do feel grading does create some problems for schools. It's also misunderstood, misrepresented and misused often," said Terry Shoemaker, a former school district superintendent who represents superintendents at the Legislature, as well as the Utah School Boards Association.

Still, the organizations he represents support the bill and also a competing measure sponsored by Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottowood Heights. HB241 has many of the same components as SB220 but does not include a requirement for school grading. HB241 was tabled by the Senate Education Committee late last week.

Brittney Cummins, a vice chairwoman of the Utah State Board of Education, said on either end of the spectrum, school grades can be misconstrued. Still, the reforms in student assessment and school accountability would be a step forward.

"We hope, however, (letter grades for schools) is not the one question that creates a stalemate that reverts us back to the old grading system," she said.

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he was troubled by various parties who received many changes they wanted in the legislation but refused to support it because of one aspect.

The legislation, he said, moves Utah "light years forward."

The committee voted 12-2 to send the bill to the House for further consideration. A previous version was approved by the Senate. Email:

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