If Utah dumps letter grades for schools, what comes next?

March 1, 2023

Utah looks like it’s ready to dump school letter grading before the 2023 legislative session ends.

Passing easily through committees and floor times, HB 308 – School Grading Modifications would remove the letter A-F designations that schools currently receive on the Utah School Report Card.

The public at large – and most importantly parents – would still be able to access information about schools, which would continue to be displayed on a dashboard with diagnostic details for categories like achievement, growth, English learner progress, and postsecondary readiness.

Supporters of this bill say they have accountability in mind in removing A-F letter grades. They believe that parents need more nuance about what’s happening at schools and that letter grades don’t tell the full story – especially considering test opt-out rates and the impact of a small group’s performance on the whole school.

Others who see value in a single, clear data point that communicates a school’s performance with parents believe that A-F letter grades can serve that purpose quite well.

Removing the letter grades is an interesting proposal in the developing debate around accountability this session. The passage of HB215 – Teacher Salary Increases and Optional Education Opportunities surfaced healthy discussions about accountability in state-funded K12 education. For example, the new Utah Fits All scholarship program drew concerns from the professional education community about how the public would know, in clear ways, whether scholarship families were getting a good education without requiring test scores to make apples-to-apples comparisons – instead leaving academic satisfaction almost exclusively with parents. With its passage, legislators signaled that they would be looking at accountability in the district public school system as well.

As the state continues its conversation around accountability in education, it’s important to remember that accountability can have multiple layers. For example, the aim of financial accountability should be to make sure taxpayer funds are being spent wisely, focused on the intended purposes of programs set forth by law. The aim of academic accountability should be to make sure parents are satisfied with how their students are learning and progressing as unique individuals.

How would ditching letter grades further the public’s interest in accountability?

While the bill’s proposal would remove letter grades (and for some the possible stigma of being a “failing school”), the bill maintains mechanisms whereby the lowest performing 20% of schools get additional state help and resources. This is a form of financial accountability, since it aims to ensure taxpayer funds are spent where they’re needed most.

As for academic accountability, letter grades can serve as an easy, clear rating system for parents to understand a school’s academic performance. Since parents are charged with choosing how and where to educate their children, this can be an important feature for them. However, it’s true that letter grades do not necessarily explain what factors resulted in a particular letter grade, which is important information for parents. A dashboard of diagnostic detail further supports academic accountability to parents of students.

The right balance might be to retain some form of both types of information. For instance, one public commenter suggested an amendment to the bill that would require totaling the diagnostic scores into one clear numerical score, so parents could still have a simple way to understand how a school is performing. This might retain the user-friendly aspect of a single rating, while also avoiding the stronger stigma that comes with receiving recognizable letter grades.

More importantly, the state’s approach to accountability in education needs to be consistent. If some policymakers want testing requirements for choice scholarships to clearly vet private providers, then removing easy-to-understand signals from public schools seems somewhat contradictory. Education performance ought to be understood to the same degree, regardless of whether the provider is public or private.

On the other hand, if the state wants a nuanced way of reporting performance, then giving only diagnostic information (including direct parent feedback), might be the best way forward.

Either way, policymakers ought to seek ways to be consistent in how they approach and demand accountability for all parts of our education system, including district schools, private vendors and other alternatives.

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