The feds said it first, and Thursday, the State Board of Education unanimously echoed: School districts cannot average current test scores to let schools pass No Child Left Behind.
The board's vote brings to a close months of controversy. It also opens the door to possible changes for next fall: The board will petition the U.S. Department of Education to allow the practice for the 2008 No Child Left Behind reports.
"(Right now) as a state board, we're saying ... you can appeal for (two) reasons, and I don't think it hurts to put in a parentheses, non-uniform averaging is not part of that," said board member Teresa Theurer, who moved the action. "I as a state board member just want to feel really confident that everyone is being held accountable in the same way with the same rules."
The action echoes what the U.S. Department of Education, following inquiries from the Deseret Morning News, told state leaders in late December and what the Utah State Office of Education did not appear willing to enforce as of last week.
The decision is expected to affect 25 schools in Granite School District.
"If the State Board of Education is saying this is inappropriate and if the feds are saying this is inappropriate, we're not going to use (averaging)," Granite Superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp said.
"The only reason we have used it is because we had an absolute nod ... from the state office, up to the state superintendent," he said. "At no time ever did we want to do anything, nor was it our intent to do anything, that wasn't absolutely above-board and appropriate."
Another seven schools in Davis District met the federal standard because of test-score averaging, but that district last week indicated it would revisit those appeals and not use averaging after all.
No Child Left Behind requires all students, regardless of race, income, disability or language proficiency, to read and do math well by 2014.
School districts have to report schools' progress toward that goal. Schools where one group of kids misses the mark are identified as not making adequate yearly progress (AYP). Low-income or Title I schools that repeatedly fail to make AYP face sanctions.
The state last fall reported 256 Utah schools failed to make AYP.
But the tally since changed.
Davis and Granite districts averaged test scores over three years to allow 32 schools to make AYP on appeal.
But averaging is not in Utah's AYP workbook, which is the state-set blueprint for meeting the federal law. Therefore, not every district knew about it or chose to use it.
Ultimately, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington affirmed the law gives local school districts control over appeals, which only could be made for data errors or extreme circumstances. But she told superintendents they could broadly define those terms and told the Deseret Morning News that a data error could be a reason to use three-year averaging.
But the U.S. Department of Education told the State Office of Education last month that averaging is not in the workbook and therefore could not be used. But it did invite the state to apply to include it in the workbook if seen fit.
But state associate superintendent Judy Park afterward simply reaffirmed districts' legal right to determine appeals leading some to fear more than $100 million in federal funding could be jeopardized.
Thursday, the state board acted.
"Many of us have felt the wrath of the public out there saying some are (using averaging) and some aren't," board member Dixie Allen said. "It's critical to make this as even and equitable as possible."
"We do need to follow what our workbook says now," board vice president Mark Cluff said.
The board's stand was praised by Salt Lake City Superintendent McKell Withers. "It's really important to support the accountability system that is in place and work to change that in a thoughtful way. It's not a PR (public relations) game to play; it's a need to focus on the best way to serve kids."
Park early Thursday afternoon revealed the board action in a meeting of district superintendents.
Ronnenkamp requested the action in writing, so he could discuss it with his staff and take the next step. "My guess is as soon as I get that, we'll do the appropriate thing," he said. "We'll comply."
But, he added, he is frustrated. He said district officials three times asked if averaging was appropriate, and state officials including Harrington said it was.
"We did what we were given permission to do, and now we've been told that, 'Whoops, we made a mistake,' and we can't do it," Ronnenkamp said. "That's OK. I just feel bad we're jerking our schools and communities around."
Both Jordan District and Alpine districts looked at, but never did use, three-year averaging, and have no plans to do so, officials said Thursday.
"However, we did comment that we felt it's an appropriate thing, and we've asked for it to be included in next year's workbook," Alpine District assessment director John Jesse said.
The State Office of Education is drafting a proposal to use non-uniform averaging when test results come in this spring. Park says nonuniform averaging is where schools can average test scores over three years "only when it's helpful." She said some states have been allowed to do this.
Formal proposals will come to the board Feb. 1, Park said.Averaging was allowed in Utah in the 2003 workbook for determining safe harbor (or whether a school improved enough to meet the mark), but the rules were steep and didn't push many schools over the hurdle, Park said.
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