Utah school leaders have long complained No Child Left Behind focuses only on whether students achieve a certain test score instead of giving credit for the progress kids are making.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education is saying all states can apply to create a system — officials are calling it a "growth model" — that takes into account students' academic progress from one year to the next.

But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington is uncertain whether Utah will take up the invitation. The federal government once denied Utah's "growth model" proposal because it didn't hold schools accountable for how each group of students does on tests — No Child Left Behind's central mission.

"We're finding out the perimeters that they are going to put around approval of growth models, then we'll confer with the (State) Board (of Education) ... and move on from there," Harrington told the Deseret Morning News Tuesday. But, she added: "I will not be an advocate of allowing schools to be labeled as a failure when only one student group" falls short.

But Utah schools already are entrenched, as are those in every other state, in the federal law's all-or-nothing judgements. So why not seize an opportunity to make it more fair — and likely, let more schools make the mark every year?

"A growth model ... really gives opportunities for schools to be recognized for working with students across the continuum," said Laurie Lacy, Title I supervisor for Salt Lake City School District. "It's just better for education."

No Child Left Behind requires all students to be able to read and do math well by 2014. Schools must answer for test scores of every group of students, created by ethnicity, disability, income and English language acquisition. If one student group fails to meet standards, the whole school fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress and is identified as such in public reports.

Utah has fought the law as intruding on state rights, and once threatened to refuse to participate, a move that would have left behind more than $100 million, which largely helps low-income children.

Meanwhile, Utah firmed up its own way of holding schools accountable for student achievement. Its U-PASS system gives schools credit for students making progress, especially for kids who have come the longest way, before judging whether they need help.

But Utah, applying that U-PASS system, was not among nine states the federal department chose for its growth-model pilot a couple years back. That's partly because U-PASS, even though it reports scores for every student group, only holds schools accountable for two groups of kids: Caucasians who can afford school lunch, and everybody else.

"We like what U-PASS does better than what No Child Left Behind does as it relates to an accurate portrayal of a school," Harrington said. "To call a school a failure because of one subgroup, especially students with disabilities or English language learners, has always been a frustration point in Utah."

The U.S. Department of Education now wants to let more states use a growth model. It will take proposals through Feb. 1.

"It will allow states another effective way of measuring Adequate Yearly Progress by measuring individual student growth over time, and it will continue to expand the flexibility available to states under No Child Left Behind," U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a prepared statement issued last week.

It's uncertain whether Utah will seek to apply U-PASS principles to every student group, a requirement for applicant states, the U.S. Department of Education reports. Or, whether doing so would create more difference between U-PASS and No Child Left Behind at a time when Harrington says state leaders are trying to come up with a common accountability system.

But Lacy hopes Utah will act.

"We have the information, an IT system that affords us the opportunity," Lacy said. "I think we should be fairly well positioned to do it."

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