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Latest NCLB data buoys Utah

87% of schools clear the bar, compared with 84% last year

Glendale Middle School students feel 10 feet tall. Teachers are celebrating. Even the principal gets choked up talking about it:

The inner-city Salt Lake school, where 95 percent of students are poor and more than half are still learning English, cleared No Child Left Behind's achievement hurdle this year.

Math gains are the school's highlight: In spring 2004, 56 percent of the teens were testing as proficient in that subject. A year later, 80 percent hit the mark.

"I have got probably the most hard-working, dedicated people working their hearts out every day," principal Ernie Nix said. "The teachers gave kids a goal and told the kids they could do it."

No Child Left Behind progress reports were issued Thursday for every school in the state.

And Utah is looking good.

Last year, 84 percent of Beehive State schools cleared the bar.

This year, that number jumped to 87 percent.

School leaders say the boost is all the more impressive considering Utah raised its achievement expectations this year.

But is it really?

No question, many schools have been investing in research-based strategies, teaching coaches and extra testing tools, and zeroing in on students who need the help.

But No Child Left Behind reports also can be misleading. They don't mean, for instance, acceptable numbers of students are on grade level in reading and math. Nor do they mean all students are clearing the now higher bar.

They mostly show academic achievement is rising.

And that, many say, is great news.

"The best news on it is . . . the kids most at-risk are improving," said Brenda Hales, executive director of curriculum and instruction in Jordan School District. "I think it's nice to see positive direction. But I'm still not sure how much of that positive direction is due to change in the cut (or passing) scores in the CRTs, (state core curriculum tests) and how much of it is due to progress."

No Child Left Behind aims to shine a spotlight on school weaknesses, pressuring them to focus on groups of students who historically fall behind. The law requires all public schoolchildren, regardless of race, disability, income or English attainment, to read and do math well by 2014.

Utah raises its achievement expectations every other year — including this one — until it reaches the 100 percent mark.

Movement toward the goal is measured by "Adequate Yearly Progress" reports. Schools either must have enough students scoring as proficient, or have moved enough students up from the bottom, and have 95 percent of students in each student group taking the tests. If one group founders, the whole school fails.

Utah legislative and school leaders have criticized the law as underfunded and unrealistic. A new law prioritizes state education goals over federal ones.

Still, Utah schools are progressing on No Child Left Behind reports.

"This is the best Granite District has ever done in three years of AYP," Granite assessment director Darryl Thomas said.

Last year, 60 percent of Granite schools made the mark; this year, the number rose to 78 percent.

In Jordan, 49 percent of schools made AYP two years ago. Last year, 73 percent made it. This year, it's 81 percent.

But statewide, 35 schools, including three in Jordan, made the grade on appeal.

The reasons are diverse.

A state computer problem erroneously counted some students in school test scores when they weren't enrolled at least 160 days of the school year, affecting 13 schools, the state reports.

Two Jordan schools were overturned because of state data errors; the other was for special circumstances at Sandy Elementary.

That school was closed much of the school year due to fire. Students were divided into several area schools, and if they missed the bus, that often meant missing the whole day. The district found attendance dropped an average 2 percent for every group, affecting outcomes under the federal law.

"We determined because of the extreme and unusual circumstances associated through that fire, they would have that appeal granted, because they made it on everything except attendance," Jordan evaluation director Clyde Mason said.

One Salt Lake elementary passed due to "construct validity," because they had an influx of refugees who had never set foot in a classroom and could not speak English, read or write, Salt Lake City Associate Superintendent Charles Hausman said.

Two Carbon schools missed the mark on participation for students with disabilities. But Superintendent David Armstrong granted their appeal, noting those groups showed 22 to 23 percent gains.

Alpine District evaluation director John Jesse says fewer appeals are being granted in his district, and likely, statewide. "It's a reflection of better data and people understanding what they need to do to make sure the data is accurate to begin with."

But if a school made the federal grade this year, it doesn't necessarily mean students are on grade level.

A year ago, the state changed how high a student must score on each test in order to pass. Cut scores were standardized, mainly to reveal students' academic growth, Hales said. As a result, she's not sure if the test shows if a student is on grade level.

"Our biggest concern is, are our kids progressing," Hales said. "What we're finding is, the CRT doesn't really help us."

But Hausman believes cut scores moved so little they wouldn't have much affect on state outcomes.

"Safe harbor" rules, however, are another matter.

Of 805 schools making AYP, just 243 of them actually met the state's expectations, or 71 and 64 percent proficiency in elementary language arts and math, and 70 and 47 percent proficiency in secondary math, the State Office of Education reports.

But 527 of them made it through what's called "safe harbor," or when a school reduces the number of students scoring below proficiency by 10 percent.

In other words, they made it because they showed enough growth.

"The areas where we focused during the school year, that's where we made our greatest gains," Hausman said.

Salt Lake school leaders zeroed in on 800 students. Their teachers received data pinpointing each child's weaknesses and recommended ways to address them.

The group's proficiency levels rose from 29 percent to 53 percent in a year.

Such data show No Child Left Behind helps students, ethnic minority student advocate Michael Clara said.

"What I like about No Child Left Behind is it tells educators and parents, 'There's no more excuses, you are now accountable for what happens.' As a result of that accountability, we are getting the positive results we are seeing now," Clara said. "So it is ironic that we would have a Legislature that wants to spit on NCLB when for ethnic minority children, this is the best thing that has happened."

The University of Utah's Andrea Rorrer agrees the spotlight can inspire change. But the assistant professor of educational leadership and policy says schools must not slap today's success on the marquee and move on.

"It's a starting point for us in asking difficult questions about our practice in education: What's good, what should we keep, what should we revise, what should we move beyond," she said.

Glendale Middle School is trying to move in that direction. Teachers are using new strategies to teach language arts and math, getting tips from experts on classroom management, and most of all, digging in, Nix said.

This year's achievement is plenty reason to continue.

"You should have heard the roar of applause when I told (students)" about the progress report, Nix said. "They walked out of there with heads high, knowing that even though many of them come from difficult circumstances, they can do as well and are as bright as any of the other students in the state."