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UTAH SCORES HIGH ON SAT, DESPITE FUND WOES

Utah students knock off some good Scholastic Assessment Test scores, despite the fact that the state is dead last in its per-pupil spending, according to a new report.

Findings in the "Report Card on American Education 1994" confirmed a trend discovered in 1993 of "increased spending without commensurate improvement in performance."The top states in terms of performance on standardized SAT tests were Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Though none of these states was on the study's list of those that spent the most on each student, Wisconsin and Iowa have been known for years for their generous education budgets.

For example, Wisconsin in 1993 was ninth in the country in per pupil spending and Iowa was 24th, according to the National Education Association.

But Utah ranked dead last - 51st among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia - in terms of spending.

According to the study, the highest-spending states were Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.

Utah educators are wary of such phrases as "throwing money at education doesn't make it better" that have erupted since the study's release.

"The general conclusion of the study, that Utah is a high-performing state, is accurate," said Dave Nelson, director of evaluation and assessment for the Utah State Office of Education. "It doesn't matter what measure you're looking at. There also is no question that when you look at the detail, there is lots of room for improvement."

Nelson said "throwing money" is simply political rhetoric. "Nobody has thrown money at education in Utah since the existence of the state."

In fact, he contends that more money - if spent wisely - will boost Utah test scores even higher.

"We've been pointing out for some time that there's been real growth in our ACT mathematics scores. The reason is an incredible effort on the part of teachers, districts and the state office - and a fair amount of additional funding at local, state and federal levels," Nelson said. "It's a really good example of where targeted expenditures of money make a real difference in educational performance."

He added that states such as Utah and Wisconsin should perform well since they don't have the pervasive poverty found in more urban states.

The study said the high-performance states all had child poverty levels below the national average of 19.8 percent, but the study denied that poverty by itself prevented children from learning.

"There is a growing concensus that successful schools have three key qualities in common: a belief that all children can learn, and goals to challenge their students academically; local control; and a high degree of parental involvement," the study said.

The study was conducted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit public policy think tank that counts some 2,500 state legislators among its members.