Utah schoolchildren in fifth, eighth and 11th grades completed their first statewide tests this fall, with results that show them slightly above national norms.
The data accumulated from the three grades in all 40 school districts will become the yardstick for measuring student performance in the future. That was the objective of the Utah Legislature when it initiated the statewide testing as part of a package of "accountability" bills."This is the first year we have done the testing statewide. I feel the results give us an excellent baseline to improve our schools," said Jay B. Taggart, state superintendent of public instruction.
On the total basic battery, which included 10 subtests for fifth- and eighth-graders and six for 11th-graders, the average scores were: fifth grade, 53; eighth grade, 51; 11th grade, 53. The national norm is 50. In all, more than 95,500 students took the tests.
"We had almost 98 percent participation. That's probably as well as any state in the country has ever done," said David E. Nelson, testing specialist in the State Office of Education. Children were alerted ahead of time and urged to be in school with pencils sharpened for the tests.
Companies that market national tests develop a "norm" by giving the test to a large group of children, demographically selected to represent a cross-section of American students. The Stanford 8 was tested on more than 600,000 students. The results were assessed and divided on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 as the norm. Half the children scored above that midway point and half below.
Some of Utah's educational critics believe Utah students should significantly exceed national norms because the test group represents a much larger proportion of minority and poor students than is found in Utah.
The only academic area in which Utah students scored below their peer average nationally was in English/language arts, a red flag that Taggart said needs to be analyzed and used to improve performance in the future. The scores at fifth, eighth and 11th grades, respectively, were 48, 45 and 45.
Taggart rejoiced in above-norm math scores that showed gains in an area that had been weak in the past. The scores were 60, 53 and 54 from fifth to 11th grades.
"With a newly normed test, it was very gratifying to see our science and math at such high levels," he said.
The tests confirm that schools in affluent neighborhoods do better than those in poor neighborhoods. Taggart said the state should recognize the differences and increase efforts to make school more productive for at-risk children. Children from poor families have as much capacity to learn as those from rich families and ways should be found to meet their educational needs, he said.
A committee selected the Stanford Achievement Test, 8th edition, as the vehicle for creating a statewide comparison base for Utah. Although there is no longitudinal data for comparison this year, over time, schools can be compared to themselves to see if they are making headway, remaining stagnant or losing ground in their educational achievement.
Comparing schools to themselves is more fair than comparing them with other schools, because of the large number of variables that affect student performance, Nelson said. (See accompanying chart)
To help offset the effects of these variables, the Utah State Office of Education prepared "expected scores" against which the schools could be measured. The expectations were developed by determining how many children in a school were on free or reduced lunch or whose families were receiving Aid to Dependent Children - indications of low family income, which is in turn an indicator of poor school performance. Most Utah schools fell within the range of expectations, even though their scores may have been below the national norm of 50.
The Stanford 8 was normed in 1988 and was administered in the fall when children had been in school for only a short time - factors that may have lowered Utah's scores somewhat in the first go-round, said David E. Nelson, state testing director.
As the same achievement test is used over a period of years, scores tend to become higher as children become more familiar with the test format and also because educational achievement in the United States is climbing overall, Nelson said. Teachers may be tempted to "teach to the test" to raise scores, critics of national tests say.
Each of Utah's 40 districts has historically selected an achievement test from among a number of commercially prepared tests, and most will continue to use their own tests to plot their status over time, but this is the first time the same test has been taken by children across the state.
Nelson stressed that the Stanford 8 is just one indication of how Utah schools are doing. Schools also administer state-prepared tests based on the Utah core curriculum - a better measure of how well the students are learning what they are actually being taught, instead of how they score on nationally accepted educational standards.
Utah Education Association President Lily Eskelsen also asked that parents and other school-watchers not make hasty conclusions based on the Stanford 8 results. The instruction in a low-performing school may be just as good as that at a high-performing school, she said, depending on the challenges created by outside factors.
In the Deseret News summary, only the total battery score is given. A very high score or very low score in any one subject area can make the total deceptive.
Parents are advised to contact their own school for a complete report on the test. Districts will be sending districtwide "report cards" to patrons in the near future.
Angelyn Nelson-Hutchinson and Jim Rayburn contributed to this story.
Achievement test results
Results of statewide achievement tests of Utah students in the fifth, eighth and 11th grades are being released this week.
The Deseret News compares district scores in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Tooele, Wasatch and Summit counties today and will continue with school-by-school results during the week.
The schedule incldes:
Monday, Dec. 24, Granite District
Tuesday, Dec. 25, Salt Lake and Murray districts
Wednesday, Dec. 26, Jordan District
Thursday, Dec. 27, Alpine, Provo and Nebo districts
Friday, Dec. 28, Davis District
Saturday, Dec. 29, Tooele, Park City, North and South Summit districts *****
Varied factors affect school performance
Many factors influence the performance of children in a given school. They include:
Socioeconomic status: Poverty, troubled home conditions and lack of exposure to the world around them limit children in their ability to learn. Parents who are more highly educated and whose income is adequate or greater, in general, have children who are prepared for school. These children have access to books, toys, trips and other educational opportunities. In some schools, large numbers of children do not speak English as a primary language, lowering scores overall.
Mobility: Several studies have shown that students who move and change schools frequently score significantly below their peers in achievement tests. Some schools have very high turnover - some approaching 100 percent in a school year - challenging teachers to maintain a consistent program.
Parent support: Teachers emphasize that the children who perform best in their classes are those whose parents are concerned and actively involved in their youngsters' education. In homes where both parents work, or in which parents do not speak English, participation at school tends to be limited.
Resources: While the state provides the same per-child support for every student, resources vary from district to district and school to school. Some districts levy local taxes to enrich programs and reduce class sizes. In others, taxpayers will not support the additional taxes. In affluent schools, parents and businesses may volunteer time in the classroom and donate money, equipment or amenities to increase the children's educational opportunities.
Special programs: Some schools have special programs for gifted and talented children or, conversely, for children considered at risk educationally. Scores are affected by clustering of these students. (Children in special education categories were not included in the current testing.)
Average SAT scores according to district
National Norm is 50
(Scores are represented in percentiles and are either above or below the national norm.)
District Grade 5 Grade 6 Grade 7
Salt Lake 51 53 57
Murray 60 48 56
Granite 47 47 51
Jordan 55 54 57
Alpine 61 57 58
Nebo 55 51 53
Provo 63 60 64
Davis 52 56 55
Tooele 48 45 41
North Summit 61 60 51
South Summit 58 51 48
Park City 73 67 61