1 of 3
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Students raise their hands to ask questions during the Champion Challenge Rodeo Assembly at Brockbank Elementary School in Spanish Fork on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The challenge encourages students to read.

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers appropriated record levels of funding to public education during the just-concluded general session of the Utah Legislature.

They also raised the bar on early reading standards, which portends to be a heavy lift for many schools that do not currently meet the state code standard — that 50 percent of Utah elementary schoolers read at or above grade level by the end of the third grade.

The Utah Legislature's passage of SB194 raised that standard to 60 percent.

“I say we shouldn’t be happy until we get to 90 percent,” said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the bill’s sponsor.

Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, a retired schoolteacher, said the stakes are high.

“We talk a lot about STEM at the Legislature, but if kids can’t read, they can’t do anything. They can’t be successful in any subject and in life,” said Poulson, who serves on the House Education Standing Committee.

A recent report by the Education Commission of the States said children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school.

SB194 also calls on local school boards to set proficiency goals, develop strategies to reach the goals and to report their results to the state so that successful approaches can be replicated elsewhere.

For the 2016-17 school year, 48.6 percent of all Utah third-graders were proficient in language arts, according to the state’s Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence or SAGE. The test assesses reading and writing.

Girls fared better than boys, according to the results and proficiency rates among demographic groups. Fifty-four percent of Caucasian students reached proficiency while 19.7 percent of American Indian students did. Among Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, 28.3 percent were proficient in language arts, according to the test results.

Over the past four years, there has been an upward trend in statewide language arts proficiency, according to SAGE results. In the 2013-14 school year, just 44 percent of Utah third-graders were proficient.

There have also been gains in most demographic categories, but only Caucasians, Asians and girls were at or above 50 percent proficiency for three years running.

“I can’t believe in Utah we’re only 50 percent, so I’m equally frustrated because it’s our kids and it’s their future that we’re leaving behind,” said Millner, a former university president.

While the Utah State Board of Education has a goal of closing the reading proficiency gap by one-third by 2020, the higher standard set under SB194 means that, initially, even more schools won’t make the mark, Jennifer Throndsen, coordinator of the board’s elementary language arts team, told lawmakers.

However, SB194 “rachets up” expectations, local accountability and responsibility, she said.

“The avenue of which Sen. Millner is really helping us with this bill is to have a little more teeth in which the board can say what is allowable in schools right now,” Throndsen said.

Current statutes and State School Board rules offered so much flexibility “it’s almost too much,” Throndsen said.

The new law requires local goal setting and a public process to help ensure transparency and accountability.

“Right now we don't have any way to hold a school or an LEA (local education agency) accountable for the types of services they provide. This bill will really allow us to put into board rule specificity around what is allowable in schools and also where there should be flexibility. We know what works and we need to be using those things that work. At this time, we’re using a lot of things that aren’t as effective as they could be,” Throndsen said.

3 comments on this story

Millner said SB194 is not a “silver bullet," but it is an opportunity to learn from current practices and outcomes.

“I do think we can learn from this if we ask local boards, ‘Take some responsibility for this. Look at what you’re doing in your schools, in your district. Set goals, identify the strategies you’re going to us,'" Millner said.

“I’m just trying to get some accountability and transparency at the local level that will hopefully engage people in figuring out how to do this better school by school.”