Utah's typically gleaming scores on national tests could be mere veneer, a Utah Foundation report released Thursday shows.

Utah's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks last among five other states with similar demographics, according to the report, "School Testing Results, 2006 & 2007: How Utah Compares to Other States."

The report examined the eighth-grade math and reading results issued earlier this fall with "The Nation's Report Card," and science test results issued in 2005, the most recent report available.

The NAEP also tests fourth-graders nationwide.

The comparison's results startled the researchers, foundation president Stephen Kroes said.

"Utah's school population has a lot of educational advantages, including low poverty rates and a high percent of parents who have graduated from college. With these advantages, a state like Utah is expected to score much higher than national averages."

The findings do not surprise state associate superintendent Brenda Hales. "We've been looking at this for some time," she said. But they nonetheless intrigue her.

"I like the approach to it, to look at similar demographics. There just needs to be some extension of that," Hales said. "If you don't have all the information, because it relates to (dynamics of) humans, it's like looking at your next-door neighbors and deciding to have a heart transplant."

The report compared Utah to states with similar poverty levels (Utah is the 13th-lowest state in the nation in terms of students qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch); parental education (Utah is ninth in the country for rate of students with at least one college-graduate parent); and ethnic profiles (Utah is 11th-lowest in its proportion of ethnic minority students). Such student factors are shown to affect student achievement more than a teacher or school factors, the report states.

The idea is to provide an "apples to apples" comparison to give a more accurate look of student performance, the report states.

Each comparison point included a different group of peer states. But results for Utah were almost always the same.

Among states with similar poverty, Utah ranked lowest among eight states — Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Ohio, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wisconsin — in math and reading, but second to last, ahead of Delaware, on science.

Results were the same on reading and math among states with similar parental education levels, but Utah scored third to last on science, in front of New Jersey and Maryland.

Utah ranked second to last on all tests among states that are similarly predominantly Caucasian.

Ultimately, the study stacked Utah against states sharing two of the demographic factors: Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Utah scored last among all of them, with a national rank of 30 in math, 29 in reading and 18 in science.

That's a stark contrast to Utah's overall scores, which were overall above national averages and climbing.

"Clearly, something is limiting Utah's ability to perform at a level that would be expected with its demographic profile," the report states. "More research is needed to try to pinpoint which factors may contribute the most to Utah's poor rankings among these peer states."

The report suggests low per-student spending — peer states spent an average $8,251 per student, about $3,000 higher than Utah, the report states — teacher quality, curriculum, even cultural attitudes toward achievement could be factors. Kroes suggests Utah's class sizes, the highest in the country, also may be a factor.

Hales would love to see Utah compared to states with similar funding and class size levels, growth and curriculum trends, student mobility and net migration to better show how Utah might improve student achievement.

"You try and look at all involved, and try to make comparisons and where you find close similarities, see what they're doing that you're not," Hales said.

She looks forward to future research on the matter.

For the full report, including test scores for every school taking the Iowa basic skills tests and achievement gaps between ethnic groups therein, visit www.utahfoundation.org.

The foundation aims to better inform public policy and dialogue through nonpartisan research.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com