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Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Teacher Mary Hamilton helps sixth-grader Karina Palza at Oquirrh Hills Elementary, which made AYP this year.

SALT LAKE CITY — The percentage of schools in Utah that met federal testing requirements fell to 79 percent in 2009-10 — that's down from 87 percent the previous school year.

The results were released in the annual Adequate Yearly Progress report by the Utah State Office of Education on Monday.

Based on their math and language arts standardized test scores, schools must show that they are making AYP as part of the No Child Left Behind federal education law. Students in grades 3-12 statewide take the Criterion Referenced Test each spring, upon which AYP is based.

The dip in the percentage of schools meeting the requirements isn't necessarily reflective of the state of education in Utah, but rather the state of the assessment process, said John Jesse, director of assessment for the State Office of Education.

Every two years, the percentage of students required to test at grade level increases. The idea is that by 2014, 100 percent of students will be able to test at grade level.

"I think (the results are) representative of a continually rising bar," he said. "You're telling someone to run uphill and you're going to increase the grade (slope) and ask them to run faster."

While the percentage of schools receiving passing grades fell, the percentage of districts in the state that passed AYP held steady at 83 percent.

Improvement is desirable for all schools, but only Title 1 schools that receive federal money for serving low-income populations face sanctions if they don't meet their targets.

Oquirrh Hills Elementary in Kearns is one of them. It didn't meet the language arts standards for the 2008-09 school year, and although it brought its scores up and met AYP standards for the 2009-10 year, it still isn't free and clear. It has another year of "program improvement" before it no longer has to provide provide after school tutoring and transportation for students within its boundaries who want to attend other schools.

"We toasted with apple juice to our success, and now we move forward," said principal Vicki Ricketts.

The number of Title 1 schools in program improvement is the lowest it has ever been. Only eight schools have that distinction for the current school year, compared to 12 in 2009-10 and 15 in 2008-09.

Turnover is common among the schools that succeed or fail each year. That's because in order to pass, schools must pass in 40 different categories and subgroups. If a single subgroup of students such as those who are economically disadvantaged or English language learners do not meet the target, or if the right percentage of them aren't tested, the whole school risks not passing.

"You see quite a bit of variability," Jesse said.

Teachers and administrators are always very concerned with AYP, and it "weighs heavily" on them throughout the year, Ricketts said.

"Principals and teacher do take it very seriously," Jesse said.

Jamie Lee, a fourth grade teacher at Oquirrh Hills, waited for the results this year with baited breath. "It was nerve-racking not to know if all of our time paid off," she said.

Oquirrh Hills ramped up its vocabulary instruction and implemented time for small group instruction each day. Teachers meet with half of their class while the others attend a lab so the teachers can identify individual needs.

It was disappointing to not make AYP last year, Ricketts said, but it provided an opportunity for the school to analyze its curriculum and make improvements.

"It refocuses us," she said.

Jesse said that as the targets increase, it's inevitable that more schools won't make the cut.

"I'm not suggesting that there aren't issues with schools in Utah. ...But I would not suggest that the higher number of schools not making AYP is highlighting that. It's reflective of the accountability system that we have in place."

AYP results

Number of Davis, Salt Lake and Utah county schools that did not make AYP per district (a complete state-wide school listing can be found here):

Alpine: 12 out of 71

Canyons: 15 out of 44

Davis: 18 out of 83

Granite: 35 out of 89

Jordan: 13 out of 52

Salt Lake: 8 out of 40

Provo: 5 out of 19