Mediocre, poor, abysmal.

Those words have been used throughout the 1980s to describe the performance of U.S. public school students compared with pupils in other industrial nations.Despite U.S. efforts to improve, Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos on Wednesday released information that shows school performance is stagnating.

In Utah, the impact of Cavazos' report was softened somewhat by statements from top educators that Utah students compare favorably to their counterparts in other states. In addition, Gov. Norm Bangerter said Friday that the teacher salary figures are misleading because of special circumstances in Utah. (See related story on B1.)

But on American College Testing results, such assertions don't "test out." On key ACT comparisons, the state's college-bound seniors are actually falling below ACT averages.

Utah Caucasian students in 1988, for example, averaged 19.2 on ACT tests - the national average was 19.6.

Minority students in Utah also fell below ACT minority averages. Of the five ethnic minority groupings, only Utah's blacks scored above the 28-state average (see chart).

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, called the comparisons "disturbing." Bishop, a Box Elder High School teacher who has sponsored education-related legislation in Utah's House, said the ethnic-based data may mean "we need to rethink a few things." He said he had been unaware that such comparisons existed.

The comparisons have prompted Sen. Bill Barton, R-West Valley, to repeat his call for the state to offer encouragement for parents to send their children to private schools.

Until the data are analyzed, Nelson's statistics seem at odds with Utah's annual ACT report card, which usually ranks the state above the 28-state average. Last fall, for example, James Moss, Utah superintendent of public instruction, praised Utah's 18.9 composite score on ACT tests (compared with an 18.8 national average) as "excellent evidence" of the success of 1988 graduates.

But how can the state's composite score be 0.1 point above average, as Moss says, while Utah Caucasians and minorities score considerably below average?

For starters, it's necessary to point out that minorities score far below Caucasians. In 1988, average minority composite score in ACT states was 15.1 compared with 19.6 for Caucasians. In Utah schools, minority enrollment is only 6 percent. Among the 50 states, however, minority enrollment averages 30 percent, thereby driving down the national average on both ACT and Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Noting this disparity, Betty Condie, associate executive director of the Utah Education Association, said, "Frankly, we ought to be quite ashamed that we're not way above the national average."

A comparison of Utah with the other ACT states having low minority enrollments confirms the impact of minority test takers.

Among the 10 states with minority enrollments of less than 10 percent, Utah's 18.9 score ranked eighth in 1988. Iowa, with a 20.3, topped the list.

Among the eight Mountain West states, Utah's composite ranks seventh.

With Wednesday's release of comparative data, Utah education officials asserted that the high proportion of Utah seniors who take ACT tests tends to lower the state's overall score.

But of the five states which in 1987 had 66 percent or more of their students take the test, both 1987 and 1988 figures show that three of the five states scored higher than Utah. Sixty-seven percent took the test in Utah in 1987.

David E. Nelson, who oversees testing in the State Office of Education, emphasized that ACT tests "should be viewed as one aspect of performance among many."

Yet, Utah's ACT rankings, coupled with the consistently poor showing of U.S. students compared with other industrialized nations, raises a disturbing question: Is Utah public education no longer quality public education?

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CHART

1988 ACT composite scores

Caucasian CaucasianAsian Mexican Native Afro

males females AmericansHispanicsAmericansAmericansAmericans

Utah 20.1 18.3 18.4 16.3 15.3 13.9 13.8

U.S. 20.4 18.9 19.9 17.1 15.7 14.9 13.6