Utah Enacts A–F School Grading System

Published May 15, 2011

This fall, Utah parents will have more clarity about how their child’s school performs, thanks to a new school grading system Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed into law. SB 59 assigns a letter grade to schools based on student performance on a range of academic achievement measures.

Modeled after Florida’s decade-old grading scale, Utah’s new A-F grading system aims to provide transparency to parents about school performance. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (R-Sandy), would use student performance on statewide assessments of math, English, science, and writing, as well as year-to-year learning gains in each of the four subject areas, to form an annual school report card.

High school report cards will also incorporate graduation rates and measures of college and career readiness.

The new law empowers the Utah State Board of Education to work out the particulars of the school grading system, and requires the board to design and publish report cards for each school in print and online.

Other States Emulate Florida
Utah is not the only state to emulate Florida’s successful school grading system. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed A-F grading bills in 2010. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) made an A-F evaluation part of his education reform agenda in January.

Florida’ grading system evaluates schools and districts. Children enrolled in a school receiving a failing grade for two out of four years can transfer to a higher-performing public school of their parents’ choice.

The transparent Florida grading system, in conjunction with other reforms including high state standards, school choice, eliminating social promotion, performance pay for teachers, and alternative teacher certification, has led to impressive gains in student achievement for all children in the state. The Sunshine State has also narrowed the achievement gap. Florida’s Hispanic children now outpace or tie the statewide average of all students in reading in 31 states.

Tenure Reform Bill Signed   
Along with the new accountability measures, Herbert signed SB 73, which requires schools to base teacher layoffs on evaluations and staffing needs, rather than seniority. Herbert also signed SB 256, establishing annual teacher evaluations.

The new reforms should improve educational outcomes in Utah, said Derek Monson, manager of public policy at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City.

“These reforms are a step in the right direction because they improve accountability within Utah’s public school system,” Monson said. “For years we have used sensible, effective accountability mechanisms for the work of children attending public schools, but have refused to make the adults in the system similarly accountable for their work. Instead we have rewarded teachers and administrators for things that credible research shows do little to improve educational outcomes.”

The new laws, Monson added, “send the message that we want better than that for the children and parents who choose Utah’s public schools as their educational path.”

Lindsey M. Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.