Press Release

Last year less than 60 percent of elementary-school American Indian and Latino students in Utah passed year-end standardized tests in language arts, compared to 85 percent of white students. About a third of black students failed to pass. The gaps were similar in math test results. –  Salt Lake Tribune, December 16, 2003

In December 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune highlighted what it described as an education crisis in Utah: the academic achievement of minority students that trailed far behind the achievement of their White peers.

Fast-forward two years. About one-quarter of Utah’s students don’t meet state standards in language arts and math. The picture is even worse for Latino and Native American students, half of whom aren’t being taught to grade level in these subjects. Despite this record, state officials claim that their system of educating students works just fine. Instead of acknowledging these problems and taking steps to fix them, some lawmakers and educators in Utah are expending enormous energy to fend off the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that aims to raise overall achievement and close gaps between groups.

Think about it. Utah has decided that, starting next year, high school students in the state will have to pass tests demonstrating their knowledge of reading, writing, and math to get high school diplomas.  But some educators in the state don’t want to be responsible for ensuring that these students receive the quality education they need to pass these exams.

A mixed record in Utah

To be clear: There is some good news in Utah. The gaps between poor and non-poor students are quite small on the state’s own tests. But Utah’s public schools are not working well for all students. Consider the state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card.

Latino fourth-graders in Utah demonstrate lower reading skills than Latinos in all but two states and the District of Columbia, and White fourth-graders in Utah trail White students in most other states in reading. In addition, Utah has one of the largest gaps between Latino and White students in the nation on the NAEP.  How big is the gap?  In reading, Latino fourth-graders are roughly three years behind their White peers.  In eighth-grade math, the gap is even bigger, and the overall performance of Whites and Latinos also is below the national average for each group.

Low achievement is not inevitable for Latino students. For instance, Latino fourth-graders in nearby Wyoming are roughly two years ahead of Utah’s Latino students in reading.  In fact, Latinos in Ohio perform as well as White students in Utah in eighth-grade reading.

What Utah students need

To provide a quality education for all students, Utah needs to ensure that all students have access to quality teachers.  We know that the quality of a student’s teacher has an enormous influence on how much that child learns. Yet in Utah, students in high-poverty secondary schools are more than five times as likely as students in low-poverty schools to have teachers who lack even a college minor in the subject they’re teaching. (Analysis by Richard Ingersoll, University of Pennsylvania, 2002.)

Utah also needs a system that holds schools accountable for making progress with all students. Some education officials in the state are pushing an accountability proposal for public education that evaluates schools based on overall averages alone. These averages mask glaring gaps between groups of students.  With just half of Latino and Native American students reading and doing math on grade level, Utah needs a system that identifies schools that are struggling with any group of students and gives them the support and assistance they need. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) helps Utah do just that.

More than anything, Utah needs to be honest about the challenges it faces and focus on real improvement.  NCLB can help. Under the law, states, districts, and schools collect and publicly report information on how all students are performing. Schools are responsible for making progress with all students and closing gaps between groups.  States and districts are responsible for providing the supports and assistance that schools need to meet this goal of educating all students to state standards.

Face the truth

Utah officials must wake up to the truth. They still have a lot of work to do to raise achievement for all students and narrow gaps between groups.  Sadly, rather than rolling up their sleeves, too many people in Utah who are responsible for educating the state’s children are wasting precious time and resources trying to excuse themselves from the No Child Left Behind law.

The law isn’t perfect, but right now it’s the nation’s best tool to address pervasive inequities. It is not, as some Utah officials claim, an unwieldy federal mandate. Utah does not, for instance, have to spend its own money to provide extra tutoring for students in struggling schools or use state or local funds to transport students who want to transfer to higher-performing schools. Federal dollars cover those costs.

And while spending on education remains a state and local responsibility, federal funding for public education in Utah actually has increased by 60 percent since the law’s passage.

The people in Utah who are fighting NCLB under the guise of state control essentially want permission to continue to under-educate some groups of children.

Let’s be clear: Under NCLB, Utah sets standards for what Utah students should know and be able to do in each grade. Utah designs its own tests. And Utah sets its own passing scores on those tests. What the federal government asks, however, is that Utah ensures that its schools are educating all children to the state standards. That includes children who come from low-income families and those from racial and ethnic minority groups and those who are still learning English.  These children have been overlooked for far too long. NCLB ensures that they are no longer invisible.