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Utah Pitching a New Way to Rate Schools

Parents in recent months have been served an information alphabet soup on school accountability U-PASS, SB154, NCLB and each says something different.

So how are people supposed to know how schools are really doing?

The State Office of Education thinks it has an answer.

It's pitching a program that literally would tell the public which schools are not up to snuff as state law requires beginning this year by carving a new lens to examine data from state- and federally required tests.

The program also would consider other information, such as high school student achievement, both academic and extracurricular, in deciding which schools are meeting standards and which aren't.

The idea is to give parents a wide view of school performance, plus pinpoint weak spots so the state knows where it needs to spend its money to help students. The ultimate goal: getting students to pass the high school graduation test on the first try (out of a possible five).

"We think this will focus efforts on individual students, (with) academic achievement first . . . and provide a growth model where we can reward schools that put forth exceptional efforts and (their) accomplishments with at-risk students," state testing director Louise Moulding said Friday.

The program could be in place for elementary and middle schools by fall.

Utah schools have incurred several "accountability" tasks in recent years.

The 2000 Utah Performance Assessment System for Students requires a series of tests, with scores to be made public. This year, it requires the state to identify schools not meeting academic standards.

No Child Left Behind, a 2001 federal act, requires all students read and do math well by 2014.

SB154, passed by the 2003 Legislature, creates a competency-based education system, where kids must show what they know.

The state's new school accountability program would help schools interpret those laws, but it won't replace them. It includes:

Testing: Students would take core requirement tests, which measure what kids are supposed to be learning in class all year, in language arts, math and science, as they do now.

Improvement: Schools would get credit for academic improvement.

To do that, CRTs will be expressed on a 100-point scaled score, beginning as 100-199 in first grade, 200-299 in second grade and so on. Students will be expected to score at the "60" mark (160, 260, 360 and so on) or better. And 100 points equals one year's growth.

So, if a student scores a 180 on the CRT in first grade, she is above standard. If she scores 280 in second grade, she has moved up a full year.

But if the student scores a 170 in first grade, and a 230 in second grade, the student has not improved a full grade level. Nor is the student scoring at the state standard and could be identified as needing extra help.

If a first-grader scores a 120, he's below the 160 standard. But if he scores a 230 in second grade, he gained more than 100 points, and the school would get credit for that growth.

Tracking students: Right now, NCLB and U-PASS compare test scores in the same grade for example, this year's third-graders compared to last year's third-graders. That really doesn't show whether individual students are improving.

The new program would track the same group of students over time.

To do it, students would get a special number that will stick through all of Utah public schooling, even when they change schools.

High schools: Ninth- through 12th-graders don't take as many CRTs, which end with geometry, biology and 11th-grade language arts. So the program would add more requirements for them.

It would give schools "credit" for different diplomas earned and none for students who don't finish school, giving them incentive to keep students, rather than weeding them out to inflate test scores.

The state school board is working on setting up what different diplomas would look like.

A basic diploma is awarded for earning required credits, passing the graduation test (the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test) and demonstrating competence in speaking, reasoning, analysis and other criteria.

An alternative diploma could be earned by achieving individually set goals for students with disabilities, for instance.

Schools would get credits to be averaged, so large schools wouldn't be at an unfair advantage for those.

Schools would get more credit for "value-added" diplomas, which include kudos for testing and certification achievements, as well as leadership and extracurricular activities. But academic kudos would determine the number of extracurricular extra-curricular kudos schools could rack up under the program.

Issues remain, including collecting new data and setting up requirements under a point system.

The school board likes the direction so far.

"I think this will do wonderful things for children," board vice chairwoman Janet Cannon said.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

— Jennifer Toomer-Cook
Deseret Morning News


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