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Keeping score: Provo District says focus on competency lifted scores

PROVO — The Provo School District should draw a big share of attention over the next six months as Utah educators consider Gov. Mike Leavitt's mandate to adopt a new system based on student competency.

The district began to implement competency-based measures five years ago. Students now have to meet benchmarks to move through the grades, acting superintendent Randy Merrill said.

Merrill said the move has had a direct impact on improved test scores in the district.

"We've seen a remarkable rise in our reading scores," he said. "We have some of the highest scorers in the state in the core test because we have focused on reading competency."

Nearly 56 percent of Provo students placed in the reading mastery category on the state core test in 2002. Just under 46 percent of students statewide finished in that category.

Add the students who scored in the near-mastery range — good enough to move on to the next grade without help — and Provo had 85 percent of its students reading at the level they should versus 77 percent statewide.

The achievement is more remarkable, Merrill said, because the district has four Title I schools — Franklin, Joaquin, Spring Creek and Timpanogos elementaries — and all four finished above the state average. Title I schools are those identified as requiring federal assistance because they have a large number of students from low-income families.

Deseret News graphic

Provo Test Scores

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Between 75 and 80 percent of students in Provo's Title I schools are from low-income homes, said Ted Kelly, director of special programs. The other similarity between the schools is that they are all in central Provo. Many students arrive in the schools from Spanish-speaking countries, without any English skills.

"Provo is developing an inner city," Kelly said. "It's not a negative. What we're learning culturally and in teaching is making us a better school district."

Leavitt called for competency-based education statewide in his State of the State address on Jan. 21. Provo officials believe the new emphasis has proven helpful.

"Five years ago we said, let's define what we want the kids to know and do," Merrill said. "We decided we wanted them to read on their grade levels and to have teachers teach reading better. That's what's improved our test scores."

Kelly said the four at-risk schools have benefited from the federal money that comes with Title I designation and additional funds they receive from the state because they have been identified as "highly impacted" schools. The money has gone to purchase a proven one-on-one program for teaching reading and to hire additional help to implement it.

The district has developed a one-on-one program for math based on the reading model, Merrill said.

Leavitt's call for competency-based education in Utah will place more emphasis on the state core tests. He wants to move Utah away from a model created a century ago that awards students for class time instead of learning.

"Our entire system of education is based on time spent in class," Leavitt said. "Attendance is mandatory; learning is optional. It's time for a change."

Merrill has some reservations.

"The problem with competency-based education is that education is not just what you can measure on a test," said Merrill, a former principal at Timpview High School. "How do you test citizenship? One of the goals of education is to produce good citizens. I think there's more to education than what we can measure on a test. How, for example, do you capture a discussion with a teacher on literary works?

"I don't totally agree that we should reduce everything to competency-based education, but it does make sure that students don't move through the system when they can't read or can't compute."