Deseret Morning News graphic

More than one-fourth of Utah's brand new high school graduates haven't demonstrated they have the basic skills needed for life, according to Utah Basic Skills Competency Test data released Tuesday.

About 74 percent of the Class of 2007 passed all three sections of that test — reading, writing and math — mandated by state law. That means more than 9,500 teenagers are capping their public school experience with either a diploma bearing a stamp that they didn't pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test or worse, a certificate of completion.

"The idea that one-quarter of the students did not pass one or more of the three test areas is extremely disappointing," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who carried the U-PASS legislation in 2000 to hold schools accountable for student achievement, including the high-stakes basic skills test.

"We have to remember this one-quarter of students who didn't pass are the students who are left in the system. There's another 20 percent or so who have dropped out additionally, so when you add those to this group, it is shocking. We're turning out young people into an adult world who do not have basic life skills."

But educators and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have questioned whether the test effectively measures what it professes to, and what these results really mean. And the jury is out on whether the exam will make a difference in a student's future.

State law requires students to pass all three basic skills test sections and gives them up to five times to do it, starting as sophomores. If they don't pass, one of two things might happen. If they attempted the test they're failing three times, then they get a high school diploma with an embossed stamp stating they did not pass all three sections of the test. If they didn't at least try it three times, then they get a certificate of completion. There's also a state voucher available for tutoring to help students who habitually fail.

More than 27,000 students in the Class of 2007 passed all three sections. That's out of the some 36,500 enrolled, the state reports.

Slightly less than 14 percent of students, or about 5,000, passed none. More than 1,700 failed only the math exam, which historically has the highest failure rate.

As for the Class of 2008, 69 percent of students so far have passed all three sections of the test, the state reports. In the sophomore class, 58 percent passed all three on the first try.

Last year's graduating class was the first affected by the basic skills test, but the number of students not passing all three sections was never nailed down. The best guess was at least 3,700 had not passed, because that's how many the state said were still failing the math test.

This year, the number of students not passing math totaled nearly 8,200.

But Utah Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson says it's hard to say whether the number really moved at all. This is the first year the state has had a student ID that tracks them wherever they move, capturing more accurate data.

"I think you're seeing with this release of data something that's much more accurate than what you've seen in the past," associate state superintendent Judy Park said. "What does it mean about our seniors and their achievement and their abilities? I think we need to do some real work and study and get a handle on what it means."

Could it mean students don't take the test seriously? Or they lack the skills?

Stephenson thinks the fail rate would drop if students either had to pass the basic skills test or get a certificate of completion, because "students would take their school experience more seriously from the outset." He didn't know if that also could increase dropout rates, as some have suggested.

"I think students care very much" now, Davis District director of research and assessment Chris Wahlquist said. "We've seen pass rates increasing on first attempts, so I'd say they're more attuned to the need to participate in it to make sure that they pass."

In the Jordan School District, the state's largest, 68.4 percent of the Class of 2009 passed the exam on their first try, compared to 67.7 percent of the class of 2007, said Clyde Mason, director of accountability and program services.

All said, 90.3 percent of Jordan District's graduating seniors passed all three sections, Mason said. The majority of those not passing will qualify for diplomas that say they did not pass the basic skills test, rather than certificates of completion, he said.

But what exactly will that mean to them?

A certificate of completion could affect a student's future, as they wouldn't be able to say they have a high school diploma on college or job applications.

As for the stamped diplomas, it's anyone's guess.

The Utah System of Higher Education has no overall admittance policy tied to the basic skills test.

Business executives in the Salt Lake Valley have complained that students enter the work force without basic writing and math skills. But it's uncertain whether any are asking for student transcripts to prove they passed the basic skills test.

The test is still pretty new, said Michael De Groote, director of communication and marketing for the Salt Lake Chamber, which recently formed an education committee to discuss work force development needs.

"But as it becomes better known, it will become much more important, particularly as it is aiming at basic skills.

"As a business community, are we concerned (about the results)? Yes, we are very concerned, but confident as this continues to be implemented it will work better and have the accountability we need."

But some wonder if this test is the answer.

Huntsman, in an education summit last fall, called for an alternative to the basic skills testing. He said competency should be able to be measured in ways other than a single exam, and the state should not give students diplomas he said will "embarrass them for the rest of their lives."

"He's not a fan of this test," said his spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley.

"He has met with nearly every single school district in the state ... and the common (complaint) is that we overtest. When he has asked what test ought to go, the UBSCT is the answer," she said.

Huntsman prefers schools focus on creating lifelong learners, she said. "When you're constantly teaching to a test, when do you teach to life?"

But Jordan's Mason says the test has impacted schools for the better.

"I think it has helped identify students with ... basic learning needs, and we have structured programs to address those needs perhaps more strongly than we have in the past," he said. "I'm encouraged by what's going on in the schools."

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