SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's eighth-graders made statistically significant gains in reading performance in 2013, fueled by improvement among minority and economically disadvantaged students, according to a new report.
The National Assessment of Education Progress, which tracks the performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading, reports that Utah's eighth-grade class climbed three points in reading from 267 in 2011, to 270 in 2013 on a 500-point scale.
Demographic breakdowns suggest Utah is making strides in closing achievement gaps in reading. Eighth-grade reading scores for Hispanic students rose by nine points, with Asian and Pacific Islander students climbing seven points and students qualifying for free and reduced lunch gaining six points.
Scores for white students and students who do not qualify for free and reduced price lunch rose by two points.
"It is gratifying to see populations that have traditionally struggled both nationally and here in Utah make such marked improvement in reading,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said in a prepared statement. “This speaks to what is going on in Utah classrooms and our ability to prepare our students for college and careers."
A significant achievement gap remains despite the advances made by minority groups. Hispanic students trail their white peers in eighth-grade reading by 18 points, and Asian and Pacific Islander students lag behind white students by 20 points.
Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch scored 260 points in eighth-grade reading, compared to 276 for students who are not economically disadvantaged.
"It’s an issue, not just in Utah, but it should always be a critical issue until there’s no gap," said John Jesse, director of assessments for the Utah State Office of Education. "It’s got to be right at the top of our plate."
Jesse said that because the scores are aggregated at the state level, it is difficult to identify exactly what efforts or initiatives led to the increased scores. But he said the gains made in eighth-grade reading, particularly among minorities, go beyond Utah's historical performance trends.
"It's significant," he said. "I was pleased with our results."
Kristi Killpack, who teaches eighth-grade English language arts at Midvale Middle School, said literacy is a critical skill in education because it translates into all subject areas.
"There is a huge difference between someone who has good reading comprehension and someone who doesn’t," she said. "It doesn’t matter what subject area you’re in. It doesn’t matter where you’re going or what you want to do, you can’t succeed without reading comprehension."
Utah's scores for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math also showed improvement but did not exceed the assessment's threshold for statistical significance. Scores for fourth-grade math remained unchanged since 2011.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said any improvement in student performance is something to celebrate. But he added that the comparatively stagnant math scores suggest a greater need for digital learning resources in the classroom.
"The math is a serious concern, and I believe it calls for action to give teachers the tools they need to better give immediate feedback while students are working their math homework," he said.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a sample of students every two years, is currently considered the standard for comparing educational outcomes across state lines. Utah has historically performed at or slightly above the national average on the assessment, a trend that continues with the 2013 report.
While the report does not provide performance data at the local school level, Midvale Middle School Principal Frank Schofield said there is value in being able to measure student outcomes against national and state averages.
"It gives us a comparison point for one thing, and then it allows us to look at those (demographic) groups and say, ‘How are we doing and what are we doing to achieve those results,'" he said.
The state showed a higher percentage of proficient students than the national average in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading. Math proficiency for the state was not significantly different than the nation at either grade.
Nationally, the average scores in math and eighth-grade reading rose to their highest levels since the National Assessment of Education Progress began tracking student performance in 1990, according to the report.