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Why All The Fuss About School Grading?

September 1, 2013

Utah School Grading is set to launch on September 3rd. On that day, each school will receive a letter grade based on student academic progress, so parents can see how schools are performing in key areas.


This policy was patterned after the Florida Model which has helped propel significant student achievement gains there, and in several other sister-states. It was crafted through multi-year discussions and codifies major compromises from all sides, as set forth below.

The legislature created the mandate, framework and transparency but the grades are based on the standards set by the elected members of the State Board of Education.

Elementary schools and junior high schools will receive a letter grade based on the answer to the following questions:

1) Are students performing at grade level? and

2) Are students achieving enough academic growth?

The first question is the traditional yardstick for measuring school performance. The second question is being added to incent attention to each student, even those that are far below (or far above) grade level. For a school to get credit, students need to achieve at least a year’s worth of learning in the school year; less than that means the student has fallen further behind.

High schools’ grades will factor in an additional measurement: How well are students prepared for college (and life) after high school? We’ll measure this by graduation rates and ACT scores.

I believe a straightforward letter grade, based on transparent criteria, with good supporting information is an improvement on performance ranking systems used in the past that were confusing and cumbersome for the average parent.

A school’s letter grade is not a final judgment. It’s an introduction and an invitation to engage. It won’t tell you everything ­just as a student’s letter grade may not reflect the totality of his or her experience in the classroom. It does, however, shine a necessary bright light in key areas.

Some of the grades this year may surprise you. If that happens, the question to ask is, “Why did this school receive this grade?” As you dig deeper, the answers should be illuminating.

Utah’s grading system will shine a light on things that sometimes get swept under the rug. Utah’s Achievement Gap is one example. Your favorite school may have fantastic, high-profile programs for which they’ve received public accolades. However, if Hispanic students at that institution are dropping out at an abysmal rate, it hasn’t earned an A, and will not until that situation improves.

These grades should invite discussion, education, intervention, and improvement.

I expect resistance from some who are uncomfortable with transparency or opposed to reform. While I’m not interested in entertaining fear tactics from those who want to delay, diffuse and destroy school grading, I am interested in constructive feedback.

This is Utah’s first round of School Grading, and I am open to actionable proposals from those in the trenches that would make our system even stronger. Keep me informed. As I discover ways to make the new system more robust, I’ll work hard to ensure improvements are made in 2014.

School Grading is a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system that focuses on outcomes instead of inputs.

I believe such a system is necessary for teachers and administrators to focus their efforts, for parents to understand what¹s happening at their children’s schools, and for board members and lawmakers to evaluate policy changes and reallocate resources effectively.

When a neighborhood school’s grade is less than stellar, I hope it will propel everyone to chip in and to help the school improve.

Of everything I do on the legislature, nothing is more important than improving the education system. The new school grading offers accountability and clarity to guide in this effort.

You can find more information at

The anti-School Grading crowd have started to say public education representatives were locked out of the process whereby Utah School Grading legislation was passed. This is simply untrue.

Utah’s School Grading law incorporated compromises from all sides. You might asked who is meant by “all sides” and what were the compromises. Some are now saying they were not involved in the process, which surprises me. A more accurate way to characterize it might be that they weren’t as persuasive in the process as they hoped to be. But they did have a significant impact. And it’s surprising to see many of the current law’s elements that are now being criticized were actually written into the law at the request of the establishment education community.

The People

The main groups working to establish a School Grading program with the legislatures included the Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s Foundation), Parents for Choice in Education, and the Utah Technology Commission. Although the Utah Public Education Coalition (UPEC) has been active and generally negative toward School Grading, UPEC had a seay at the table. UPEC is comprised of representatives from the USOE, UEA, PTA, Patti Harrington’s groups (School Boards Association, Superintendents Association, etc.). The Utah Senate’s calendars show a plethora of meetings with UPEC and their parent organizations. Also, the governor, Lt. Gov. and their staff have participated in the analysis and negotiation process.

The Bills

Three bills, over three years, are pertinent here. Here are the bills and a list of some of compromises the legislature made with the USOE and UPEC.

2011 – SB59 School Grading System

*The legislature wanted to establish a testing threshold so schools wouldn’t be tempted to “game the system” by telling their less proficient students to just stay home on test day (which has happened in other states). Our original bill draft dropped schools a single letter grade if they failed to test enough students but we changed it at USOE’s request. Now the law says if a school doesn’t have 95% of students tested (AND 95 percent of non-proficient students) they get a failing grade. That seems harsh. This has impacted one Utah school in a big way (they would have received a B otherwise) and five others in a smaller way (they would have received Ds or Fs). We’ll probably try to change this next session – maybe by going back to the original plan of dropping one letter grade.

*The legislature wanted the 2011 bill to go into effect in 2011. The education community asked us to delay that to allow them to do some modeling and make recommendations to the interim committee. We changed the bill to answer their request.

*The legislature thought lowest quartile would be a fair base. The education community insisted on non-proficient. We compromised and changed lowest quartile to non-proficient students. That causes problems now because in schools with just a few “non-proficient” students, their test results carry too much weight.

*The education community wanted one accountability system. We agreed to that request and explicitly replaced UPASS with School Grading in the Utah Code so we have one system of accountability. (Last year they didn’t use UPASS or School Grading – they went with their own UCAS system, which some believe was an overt violation of the law.) The Legislature prefers a single assessment system.

*The legislature’s intent is that parents should have this information long before school starts. USOE wanted more time. We agreed to change the reporting date from July 31st to August 15th.

2012 – SB175 School Grading Amendments

Prior to the 2012 Session, FEECA (Foundation for Excellence in Education and Center for Assessment) flew out and met with some key legislators and USOE’s Judy Park about growth models.

*The education community wanted a Student Growth Percentile as the measurement of growth rather than our preferred value-added model. UPEC/USOE argued that our original value-added preference was too crude a measuring stick to measure and define growth. We compromised and conceded that point. It has become more of an issue now, with the USOE interpreting the law in a way that conflicts with legislative intent.

*The education community asked for delayed implementation – again – so that the USOE would have a year of the SGP model in place and know how that would impact the grades. We agreed to delay, but then they implemented their own system which did not conform to the School Grading law. I think they hoped the legislature would abandon School Grading and put their UCAS system in code.

Which brings us to this year’s legislation . . .

2013 – SB271 School Grading Amendments

*The education community didn’t like what we were going to set for a growth benchmark and didn’t want it set by the legislature. We said okay, but it has to be set openly in board rule l. We insisted on this point so the background equation can’t be changed secretly by staff. We wanted all changes to be transparent, either through the legislative or school board’s public process. We changed the bill to give the State School Board the authority to define Sufficient Growth, a.k.a. “a year’s worth of progress”.

*The education community said 90%, 80%, 70%, etc. was too high a standard, so we lowered the cut benchmarks for A, B C and D. Now 80 percent and above gets an A.

*SB 271, as originally drafted, changed “non-proficient” back to “lowest quartile”. USOE asked us to change it back to non-proficient. We did, but also required a study to evaluate which sub-group should be used. They have not yet done that study, but they are required to do it this year. We look forward to the results.

*In 2011, at their request, the legislature included Direct Writing Assessments in the school grade calculation. In 2013, we removed it – also at the request of the education community. This assessment is only given twice and their concern was that it unfairly weights something that is given inconsistently.

*Originally, a high school’s graduation rate was worth twice as many points as college readiness. The education community argued it wasn’t fair to weight graduation so heavy when college readiness is the goal. Also they felt it was a better representation of the entire student body, because fewer assessments are given in high school.

The education community asked for more focus on college readiness. So, we changed the bill so to equal weighting of graduation rate and the college readiness assessment metric (an increased weight of college readiness to 300 possible points for high school).

*The legislature wanted college readiness to be factored in right away. The education community asked to wait until the law requiring everyone to take the ACT kicked in. We agreed to delay college readiness (ACT scores) as a school grading equation until the 2013-14 school year.

*The education community didn’t want to release School Grading information on August 15th. They asked for an October 1st release. We agreed to push the release date from August 15th to September 1st.

As you can imagine, it would be difficult to make all these changes at their request if the education community wasn’t involved in the process!

The legislature also met with UPEC through the Spring and Summer of 2013, and will continue to invite them to the table as we write a possible bill for next session.

I hope you had a great Labor Day weekend! (I did!)



From → 2013 Interim

  1. RaNae Bennett permalink

    Todd, while we as teachers and schools are stepping up the bar, I would like you to look into grading parents, as well. I believe Florida also adopted this strategy and it would be a perfect time to prepare parents for scrutiny, too, as they are a critical element in the development and follow- through of our children’s education. Thanks!

  2. Carie Valentine permalink

    The one element left out of your extensive research is the fact that school grading is directly tied to the new computer adaptive tests (S.A.G.E.) that a great deal of parents are opposed to and would like to opt their children out of. The state and the USOE have completely tied the hands of parents in mandating the testing this way. The backhanded support of the USOE to allow parents to opt their child out of the testing, except that students will give a non-proficient score and the school’s grade will be affected too. This is not acceptable. Parents have the right to have their child’s work for the entire school year count towards their proficiency and not have it all tied up in one test.

    • Under UCAS and the school grading system, a school receives points for the percentage of students who score proficient. The reason for the policy is to avoid any incentive for schools to discourage students from taking an assessment. Each year some students refuse to take a CRT or some parents prohibit their children from taking a CRT; however, to date, not enough have refused to take a test to make any significant difference in a school’s score.

      Some secondary school teachers include a student’s performance on a CRT as part of the student’s overall grade for the course. Out of 9 school districts surveyed, the common practice is for the teacher to give the student an assignment in lieu of the CRT if the child opts out. No school district indicated that a student’s course grade would be negatively affected by not taking a CRT.

      Utah Code Subsection 53A-1-603(4)(f) requires the State Board of Education to adopt rules regarding adaptive testing, including: “(f) providing that scores on the tests and assessments required under Subsection (2)(a) and Subsection (3) shall be considered in determining a student’s academic grade for the appropriate course and whether a student shall advance to the next grade level.”

      That provision, or a version of that provision, has been in Utah Code Section 53A-1-603 since 2000. In 2000, HB 177 enacted language requiring a student’s performance on the CRTs or the computer adaptive test to be “considered in determining a student’s academic grade for the appropriate course and whether a student shall advance to the next grade level.” It is the same language found in Subsection (4)(f) today.

      You can find a copy of the 2000 legislation here:

      The school grading bill did not amend the current language in Subsection (4)(f) but eliminated the requirement for a student’s score on the UBSCT to be recorded on the student’s transcript of credits.

  3. I don’t want to have a spitting match about test questions or standards or whose are better or worse. The principles and philosophies to which those who have influenced and who are in controlling positions over the tests (e.g. College Board, AP, SAT, ACT), is a monopoly. No one can get into an accredited college or university without taking one of those tests (GED included).

    In concept, why should a parent who does not want their child to take these tests because they are controlled by a philosophy of education they oppose – e.g. educating for the workforce – managed and controlled by government (Dept. of Labor – statistics and workforce tracking through government-run databases), be forced to do so? Whether state or national, the test-writers and curriculum writers are all aligned with workforce management.

    How does the legislature plan to protect their parental rights, given the fact that a school now gets a failing grade (or demerit) if 95% of the school’s students don’t take it? Oh and that includes the supposedly outside-the-box schools, Charters, most of whom do not allow the taxpayers who fund them to have a vote on that school’s board, and many are state-run anyway. How is that “school choice” and “local control?”

    And for that matter, could someone here explain where this idea originated? Is there any historical precedent of a school system whose government tracked students into a managed workforce? (This is not a trick question.)

  4. Breck England permalink

    Why won’t you be honest about the “Florida Model”? Is it possible that schools in Florida are improving because of a statutory requirement capping class sizes, which you refuse to even consider? Have you discussed the effect of class sizes with actual teachers, or only with your ideological allies in the “Parents for Choice” movement? Have you actually asked the teachers at Viewmont, as I have, how degraded they feel at getting an F from you and your colleagues?

    • As for class sizes, have you read this: And yes, I talk to teachers — all the time. Look, I want smaller class sizes too — even though a high school teacher told me just this week that a good teacher can handle just about any sized class.

      As for Viewmont, the criteria earned the school a B. But because less than 95% of the students were tested, the F grade was automatic. The state office of education asked for the 95% participation or the school get an “F” rule to be put in because the schools were used to it under no child left behind. I think the penalty is too harsh, and will get it changed next year. These grades will help everyone focus on the schools that really need help and make sure they get the help they need.

      • Breck England permalink

        I read the Harvard study and found it interesting. I also noted that it is now four years old and that the average class-size reduction Chingos studied was “1.5 equivalent.” His finding a very small delta shouldn’t surprise anyone. I wouldn’t read too much into it, .

        As an English teacher at Bountiful High, I had 215 students. I assigned each student 24 writing assignments each year. These were expository writings that required me to evaluate purpose, thesis, structure, tone, word choice, and usage issues such as grammar. That’s 5,160 essays per year. To dedicate 10 minutes to assessing one essay (not enough time to do it justice) meant 860 hours work for me OUTSIDE the classroom. That is the equivalent of 21.5 40-hour weeks of work above my contracted hours, or 5 months of hard, intellectual work after hours. If I’d had the class load of a high school teacher across the state line in Wyoming, which averages 112, I would have been able to do twice the job for my students in the same amount of time. Believe me, class size matters a very great deal. When your teacher friend tells you that a good teacher can “handle” any class size, he may be right about certain aspects of the on-task job, but simple math tells you he’s dead wrong about the whole job.

        You say the grades will help everyone focus on the schools that really need help and make sure they get the help they need. What specifically do you mean by that? What strategies does the legislature have in mind to, as you say, “make sure they get the help they need”? Or is this another empty unfunded promise?

      • What I said is that I’d like to see smaller classroom sizes like everyone else. But I also have to deal with reality. I think the grades will allow the legislature, superintendents, parents, principals, and the community as a whole to better evaluate where limited resources should be allocated. I would expect district to reassign their very best teachers to failing schools. I also expect parents and communities to rally with volunteer hours to help their local schools get up to speed. And yes, I think the legislature has provided failing schools with some leverage to request more funding.

      • Breck England permalink

        Senator, I appreciate that you have to deal with reality. There are other realities as well, and one of them is the continuing slow decline from mediocrity in Utah’s educational profile. I hear a lot of rhetoric from the governor and the legislature about how the state’s future depends on educational excellence, but I see a continued unwillingness to pay the price. You cannot buy a Lexus at Yugo prices. That too is a reality.

  5. Breck England permalink

    BTW, I meant Colorado has an average class load of 142, not Wyoming.

  6. John Hughes permalink

    Howdy! For the record, I am an elementary teacher here in Utah-
    I would love to hear more about the decision to use a Bell Curve model?
    What possible good can come from using a system that is automatically assigning grades to schools? By that I mean, if an “A” is given, another school MUST get an “F”. Why do this?

    • The state office of education is using the bell curve. We have a disagreement over that and the legislature is of the opinion that the benchmark of 2011 or 2012 specifically removed the bell curve and made it so anyone and everyone can get an A. The bell is also being used un UCAS.

      One of the reasons behind 2013’s SB271 was to remove the bell. We are having ongoing discussions with them. The state office of education asked for the 95% participation or the school get an “F” rule to be put in the bill because the schools were used to it under no child left behind. We thought the penalty was to harsh. Now we see we were right. We still have work to do. We need to focus on the schools that really need help and make sure they get the help they need.

      Florida found with a 40% growth percentile as the hurdle for growth that the schools focused on those under that level and lifted them over. That is why the non-performing students had such a big jump there. We need to focus on helping them.

  7. Breck England permalink

    Senator, your notion of “reassigning the very best teachers to failing schools” is a demonstration of legislative naivete. The idea of a “best teacher” is an airy abstraction unless you take context into consideration. Trade the entire staff of “A-grade” Davis High for the staff at Kearns High. I can guarantee you that the Davis High faculty would collapse the first week. Why? Because they are used to a white upper-class culture of students who are highly motivated and enjoy strong family and community support. Having taught high school at West, Cottonwood, and Bountiful, I can assure you that each has a different culture and that teachers who thrive in one culture will wilt in another. How do you know the teachers at Kearns High School, which earned an “F” under your new grading system, are not the most dedicated, hardest-working, “best” teachers in the state for the culture they have to deal with? I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise. It would be interesting to watch.

    • It’s a local, district decision, Breck. I wouldn’t support it being done on the state level. As a parent of four children who have gone through Woods Cross Elementary, I can tell you exactly who the best teachers are. And so can everyone else.

  8. Breck England permalink

    You say you know who the best teachers are? In terms of what? Where are your measures? What is your standard? Who are the best artists? What rock band is “best”? How do you like your steak?

    Teaching is an art. Styles differ radically. Teachers who succeed with the very bright, motivated students at Davis High would flounder at Kearns. The nurturing, maternal teacher at West who motivates through love would get laughed out of the classroom at high-achieving Waterford. I’ve seen many types who succeed in many different ways. Reality is so much more complex than you allow for when you say “I know who’s best.”

    Does it really help the schools on the west side to put a scarlet letter on them? Or is it just a further attempt to demoralize the educators? Has it ever occurred to the members of your caucus to ask themselves WHY most teachers feel picked on, degraded, and demoralized by your caucus?

    • “I believe accountability and transparency are the springboard from which improvement occurs. Without a clear public understanding of where we are performing well and where we are not, how can we effectively target areas to improve and incentivize better outcomes?”
      ~Senate President Wayne Niederhauser

  9. Mindy permalink

    As a Utah educator, might I suggest that legislators spend time in the schools they are creating rules for? Not just a five minute walk-through and photo-op, but a significant amount of time. Talk to teachers, administrators, staff members, bus drivers. Find out about the people who are affected by your laws both positively and negatively. Volunteer some time. Substitute a class. See what parent involvement – or lack thereof – does for a school and a student. Ask teachers how much time they spend before school, after school, on weekends, holidays, and during the summer working and learning and improving. Ask teachers how much money out of their own pockets they spend to make sure their students can learn. Ask teachers how many of them have second, third, and even fourth jobs to support their families. Then ask again why teachers have such a hard time being demonized constantly for doing their jobs when no one else is held accountable. Most teachers I know have no problem being held accountable for what they have control over, but how can you hold anyone accountable for variables outside their sphere of influence?

    • Thanks, Mindy. I appreciate you sharing your views. Although I haven’t substituted a class (I have my own full time job), I have done many of the things you recommended. I also have four of my own children in public schools.

      With that said, I disagree that accountability and transparency are bad things. I also need to point out that SB 271 does not assign grade to individual teachers — just the school as a whole.

      To the notion that schools should not be held accountable for socio-economic conditions that may exist, I’d recommend you look at at Polk Elementary the Ogden Preparatory Academy (OPA). Although both are inner city schools, each received a “B” grade. Sen. Stuart Reid wrote about them in a recent Op-Ed.

      To fully appreciate OPA’a success, please consider its uniqueness: First, it is one of the very few inner-city, elementary, charter schools; Second, 58% of the student body is on the “free meal” program; Third, about half of the student body is made up of minority children, primarily Hispanic children; and Fourth, a significant number of the teachers are also ethnic minorities. Some of those elements apply to Polk as well.

      These schools illustrate that using poor, minority children as an excuse for not receiving an acceptable school grade is unworthy of our state and our education system. These schools prove that these children can be successfully educated. While Neither earned an “A” grade, it is clear they know how to educate under the most challenging and unique circumstances.

      I believe more than anything, school grading will highlight that Utah does a substandard job educating poor minority students. We can blame these students for our problems, or we can productively learn from schools like Polk and OPA on how to educate them.

      We have heard a number of voices, including supporters of the school grading legislation, saying that failing schools need more resources if they are to improve. That may be true, but to make that claim before discovering what Polk, OPA, and other successful schools are accomplishing with similar demographics to some of the substandard schools, shows a lack of vision and leadership. Please keep in mind, Polk, OPA and other similar schools have been successful under the present budget allocations.

      I for one may be prepared to support increase funding but not before a full analysis is done on those successful schools with the most demanding demographics, to discover how and what they have accomplished without increased funding. In other words, we need to identify which “in-classroom factors” are employed by these successful schools to determine what is working and what is not. Let’s fund what works based on the evidence and not fund substandard schools that refuse to identify and adopt proven “in-classroom factors” employed by successful schools–successful schools in our midst.

  10. You lost me at “Florida model.” Why do politicians use that as a crutch answer when asked about an education decision. If they did it in Florida–run! Where is the child psychologists in this discussion? Where is the rational understanding of children/adolescents?

    First: there was no crisis in education until politicians created one so they’d have talking points.

    Second: any time a non-teacher says anything like unto, “I had children who went through school” they automatically sound like schmucks. Thanks again for making educating your children sound like an “anybody can do it” job instead of the intensely demanding profession that it is.

    Third: grading schools is ridiculous. You’ve heard all the other people tell you why and you still don’t believe it so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, teachers are already doing their best and to insinuate that they won’t or don’t unless made to by brave politicians hammering against the insider system is denigrating to teachers.

    Fourth: I am so angry about the new education bill that requires a certain reading level by a certain time that I could scream. I am so sick of it–politicians ruining education. Did you study all the research about when most children learn to read? Have you read all the research about how children internalize the failure to learn to read when expected? Have you studied other countries that don’t teach children to read until much later than the United States? Ever heard of Leonard Sax or any of the other leading researchers on this issue? Oh wait, you’ll probably just tell me that this is how it is done in Florida–mental health of the children and common sense be damned.

    Children learn best by playing and we’re moving towards testing kindergarteners to “keep up” with countries who are trying to change their model to what the United States is moving away from so they can produce better problem solvers.

    And now the feds are taking over education completely. Phew, now I can rest easy.

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