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New plan for charting a school's progress

U-PASS measure: The performances of various subgroups, such as minorities, would be lumped into one score

By Celia Baker

The state school board has approved a plan for gauging school progress under its Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS) that calls for individual reports on the progress of ethnic minorities, English language learners and students with disabilities or economic disadvantages.

But in determining whether schools meet state accountability requirements, the progress of such subgroups within schools will be lumped into one score. That's different from the way schools are held accountable under the federal No Child Left Behind act, which requires each subgroup to be judged separately.

U-PASS's combined score for subgroups ensures that a school's overall score won't be torpedoed by low performance of a single subgroup, said Christine Kearl, state associate superintendent. Such "subjunctive jeopardy" has led to criticism of NCLB, which requires that all subgroups meet certain federal standards before a school can be deemed in compliance with the law.

Born to lose: Kearl describes NCLB, enacted in 2001, as a "snapshot" of student achievement in language, arts and math. It requires annual testing to determine whether a school will face sanctions for failure to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward compliance with the law.

Kearl said that although states set their own standards for determining AYP, they do so within rigid federal guidelines that hold schools accountable in 40 areas.

"If in any one area, a school does not meet the federally mandated definition, the entire school is labeled as failing," she said.

That rankles Utah educators, who question whether all students can meet NCLB federal proficiency standards by 2014, Kearl said. "We know that's an impossibility. We know that we have been set up to fail."

One isn't enough: Utah's dissatisfaction over NCLB, and the lack of sufficient federal funding to implement the law, led to a 2004 request to the U.S. Office of Education that Utah be allowed to use its U-PASS system, enacted in 2000, to determine AYP.

The feds verbally rejected that proposal earlier this year, Kearl said.

So, to avoid jeopardizing the $107 million the federal government kicks in to Utah's education system each year, Utah adopted a "dual accountability" program. Or, perhaps, a dueling accountability program.

During a special session last April, the Legislature passed a measure making U-PASS the "primary" accountability program for Utah schools and asserting the state's right to make determinations about how its children are educated.

Measuring growth: U-PASS's way of making schools accountable differs from NCLB's in key ways. Under U-PASS, scores on several tests are used, rather than using a single test as is the norm under NCLB. U-PASS's multiple scores are then factored into a "growth model" meant to show progress of individual students from year to year. The data is "richer and more detailed," said Judy Park, testing director for the state education office.

State school board member Tom Gregory likes the U-PASS method of giving credit to students who make more than a year's improvement between tests, instead of requiring all to meet the same proficiency standard, as NCLB does. It's unreasonable to expect students who are several years behind - often because of low English proficiency to achieve proficiency levels required of other students, he said.

Gregory said though U-PASS's new system of lumping together the accountability for subgroups does not mandate remediation for specific groups that fall below established standards, it will provide separate reports of each group's progress. He is confident the detailed reports will ensure improvement. Public outcry and the state school board's desire to be "responsible and responsive" will instigate further changes if they are needed, he said.

Setting the bar: Park said the need to implement NCLB slowed the state's work on its own accountability system. U-PASS is in line for more tweaking on Tuesday, when a panel of educators and testing experts will set the bars determining school progress and status. Consequences for schools that don't meet U-PASS's requirements are still under discussion.

"We are looking at a system that will provide rewards and incentives and answer what we need to do to provide assistance to low-performance schools," Kearl said.

Though the state must meet the requirements - and expenses - of NCLB, Utah lawmakers will be asked to provide funding for further development of U-PASS and money for incentives and assistance to schools under the program, Kearl said. Meanwhile, she hopes the U.S. Office of Education might one day accept U-PASS as Utah's way of meeting NCLB requirements. A growth-based model with some similarities to U-PASS was accepted by the federal government as Massachusetts' accountability system, she said.

Utah's U-PASS accountability program for education provides individual data for the following subgroups:

* Economically disadvantaged students
* English language learners
* Ethnic groups, including African American, American Indian, Asian, Caucasian, Latino and Pacific Islander
* Students with disabilities

Subgroup performance is lumped into an aggregate score to decide whether schools have achieved appropriate levels of performance.

Gender-based data and data about migrant students, students without disabilities and "white" ethnicity also will be reported, but will not be considered in the aggregate accountability score.

More information about the new U-PASS identification plan is available at http://www.usoe.org/board/summary/U-PASS100705 files/frame.htm

General information about U-PASS and No Child Left Behind can be found at http://www.usoe.org

— Celia Baker
The Salt Lake Tribune


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