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Scores complex for charter schools

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Test scores are like gauges for public schools. Like those in a car, they might show when it's time for an oil change, a refueling or a tune-up.

Increasingly, both nationally and in Utah, policymakers look to standardized test scores to learn how schools are performing.

But test data are complicated. And Utah's charter schools produced a complex Stanford Achievement Test report.

About half of Utah's charter schools participating in the 2001 SAT — which is required for all Utah third-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders — were established to rescue students on the verge of dropping out of school.

One such school, the Success School, enrolls students who have had run-ins with the law or are involved in the juvenile court system. Some students, founder Ron Muir says, are coming back to school for the first time in two years.

Charter schools are a branch of school reform efforts undertaken in about three-fifths of the states. Twelve have been approved in Utah, and nine are operating now.

Charter schools by their very nature attract as much — if not more — scrutiny than the public school system. People want to know if they work.

Some state legislators view school success with the economics of competition: If schools do a good job, people will enroll their children — and return every year.

That's been the case for some Utah charter schools. Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Price, for instance, is asking the State Board of Education to double its rolls to accommodate a long waiting list. Its standardized test scores have been high.

The Success School in Taylorsville also has nearly quadrupled to 77 students since opening three years ago. But its test scores lag far behind state and national averages.

The juxtaposition seems to challenge testing as a yardstick for school success. Can a school be considered successful if students don't post high scores? The answer could lie in research due out next fall.

The State Office of Education has commissioned an evaluation of the state's charter schools, said Barbara Gardner, who oversees Utah's charter schools.

Utah State University's Center for the School of the Future is conducting the study, which undoubtedly will scrutinize test score data. The study is expected to be published in August or September 2002.

For now, there are few publicized measures of how well Utah charter schools are doing. The SAT scores provide a snapshot of whether children are learning mathematics, science, reading, language arts and social sciences.

Here's a look at charter schools' SAT performance. Scores are expressed in percentiles, not percentages, and 50 is the national median score. Scores in the 60th percentile are considered exceptional; those in the 40th, cause for concern.

Just three of the schools have expected ranges, gleaned from numbers of students qualifying for free school lunch. Some schools simply did not forward the information or didn't have any information to share, state testing coordinator Barbara Lawrence said.

CBA Center: Eleventh-graders at this school for at-risk students scored above 2000 test-takers. The average math score, for instance, skyrocketed from the 11th percentile to the 50th percentile. Reading comprehension is up from the 2nd percentile to the 36th percentile.

The score is impressive. But school director Teresa Thompson doesn't take it to heart too much.

"The biggest thing we've had to look at, and I've said this over and over, is we need to be conscious of the population we're testing," Thompson said. "Next year, it could be something completely the opposite."

The Delta school is intended as a safety net for students ready to drop out of school. Enrollment, now at 36, changes quarterly, as students go back to regular high schools.

Center City School: Eighth-graders at this Salt Lake charter school scored in the 49th percentile overall, one point below the national median. Last year's eighth-graders scored in the 46th percentile.

But it's hard to interpret scores without expected ranges, school co-founder and testing specialist Sonia Woodbury said.

"I feel good about our test scores, just in raw numbers, compared to last year," she said. "But I kind of hesitate to say what they mean, because I know how important socioeconomics are . . . on standardized tests like this."

Woodbury, however, is encouraged by a 61st percentile score in reading, the subject of focus for the school last year. Some students came to Center City School reading several years below grade level.

Jean Massieu School: This year, Jean Massieu, a school for young children with hearing disabilities, did not have students at the third- or fifth-grade level who took the test.

But students are working hard to learn both American Sign Language and written English, said Minnie Mae Diaz, educational director. "Both languages are used to reinforce each other."

Pinnacle Canyon Academy: Pinnacle Canyon Academy fifth-graders marked impressive scores on this year's SAT.

The composite score of fifth-graders was in the 72nd percentile. Scores reached as high as the 82nd percentile, earned in the science subtest. The lowest score for fifth graders was in language, which hit the 67th percentile.

Third graders reached the 52nd percentile for a composite score. The group of 20 third-graders scored well in the environment subtest — hitting the 62nd percentile — but dropped below the median score in listening and language. Those scores were in the 42nd and 43rd percentiles.

Eighth-graders struggled the most this year at Pinnacle Canyon, according to the scores. The total battery for the 10 students who took the test was in the 23rd percentile. None of the subtests exceeded the norm and dipped as low as the 17th percentile in math and the 10th percentile in science.

Success School: It's hard for the Success School to know what to make of SAT scores, mainly because students come and go and only a handful took the exam.

Eighth-graders' total battery score was in the 11th percentile; the test's highlight was the 35th percentile score in math.

Eleventh-graders' total battery score was in the 25th percentile, including a 42nd percentile score in social science.

"These scores that you're looking at, for this population, are really not that helpful," founder Muir said.

Rather, the school emphasizes a test that diagnoses students' academic needs and learning styles. That way, it can help students on an individual level.

Sundance Mountain School: "We are really proud of these scores," said Ed Kruger, a teacher at the Utah County school. And they should be.

Consider these composites: Third graders scored in the 73rd percentile and fifth graders hit the 78th percentile.

Sundance students exceeded the national norm of 50 in every part of the test except fifth-grade mathematics.

In math, fifth-graders scored in the 46th percentile.

Sundance students scored well on parts of the exam that tested listening and reading skills. In the listening subtest, fifth-graders hit the 99th percentile. Third-graders logged a score in the 94th percentile.

Third-graders also scored in the 90th percentile in the environment subtest.

Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts: Test scores for 11th-graders at the Ivins, Washington County, school dipped below last year's benchmark, but remain above national averages in all subjects.

Math, in which the 36 test-takers averaged in the 57th percentile, is the only subject where students did not surpass the state average, which is the 68th percentile.

Tuacahn's language score was in the 59th percentile, 12 points above the state average. And its social science score was in the 68th percentile, 16 points above the state average.

Principal John Broberg attributes the scores to small class sizes and other efforts. "We work really hard at getting kids to have good learning environments. I think that makes a difference. Our kids have a good attitude about learning and taking the test. They take it seriously."

Uintah River High School: The 10 students who took the test at Uintah River High School in Duchesne didn't reach the national norm in most parts of the Stanford exam. The highest score on the 2001 exam was in social science, which hit the 42nd percentile. For the total battery on this year's test, students at the high school, which was created to help teenagers from the Ute tribe, scored in the 22nd percentile. Scores dipped to the 11th percentile in the language section of the test — but jumped to the 31st and 27th percentiles in math and composing parts of the exam.


E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com