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34 Utah schools poised to join NCLB's 'pass' list

Relatively obscure federal rules are lifting 34 Utah schools off No Child Left Behind's dark side, and more could follow in the coming weeks.

Twenty-five Granite District schools and nine Alpine District schools that were identified last month as failing to make "adequate yearly progress" on math and language arts tests now are set to pass federal muster based on rules allowing test scores to be averaged over three years, the Deseret Morning News learned Friday.

But it's uncertain whether all school districts knew about this rule or another one regarding students with disabilities, which also stands to alter the number of schools achieving AYP, state associate superintendent Judy Park said.

"The place where it is right now, is some districts have appealed for reasons that others haven't," Park said. "We (need to) make sure there's equity across the state."

She is working to set up a meeting with district bosses to go over the rules and discuss their options.

No Child Left Behind expects all students, regardless of race, income or disability to be able to read and do math well by 2014. States must issue annual AYP reports measuring progress toward the goal. Schools must have 95 percent of students participating in tests, plus meet state testing goals for all student groups, broken down for ethnicity, disability and income. If any segment fails, the whole school fails to meet AYP standards.

Last month, the State Office of Education reported 256 Utah schools failed to make AYP.

School districts had from Aug. 15 to Sept. 15 to review test scores and AYP designations prepared by the state. Schools can appeal, and district superintendents can grant the appeals, for two specific reasons: A calculation or data error or an extreme circumstance, Park said. The state goes through granted appeals to ensure they meet those standards.

But other rules are coming into play this year.

Under a federal rule, schools not making AYP could average their test scores or their participation rates over the past three years. If the average meets the mark, then the school can use that to clear the federal hurdle.

"The purpose of that provision is actually quite sensible," said Christine Walquist, testing director for Davis School District. "When you have very small (number of students in a student group) ... then there can be radical differences in performance based on the specific characteristics or needs of individuals in the subpopulation."

Averaging can give a more even-handed look over time at how that group is doing.

Davis, Alpine, Granite and Jordan school districts had petitioned the state on the three-year average rule, Granite District assessment, research and evaluation director Darryl Thomas said.

Davis School District applied both rules in overturning 17 schools' AYP failures this year — an inordinate number for the district, based on past history — before the statewide reports were issued in mid-September.

Jordan School District also overturned 10 schools' designations before the state's report, but reasons were not known at press time Friday. A Friday afternoon phone message to the testing director, who had been out of the office, was not returned.

The 25 Granite schools appealing are in addition to the 11 others the district overturned on appeal in time for the state to issue the public report.

In Alpine, the nine schools under appeal are in addition to nine more reversed before the state issued the AYP report last month, district research and evaluation director John Jesse said.

The actions are particularly relevant for three Alpine and nine Granite Title I schools, which face federal sanctions for repeatedly missing the mark.

"We're just hoping now the state will accept our appeal," Thomas said.

A second rule at issue is relatively new, and affects students with disabilities. Students no longer needing special education services still can have their test scores count in the students with disabilities subgroup for two years.

A similar rule has long been in effect for students who formerly were considered limited in their English language skills.

Presumably, keeping those students in the typically low-performing groups would raise the group's test scores. But not necessarily, Park notes.

Davis School District did cite that rule in granting some schools' appeals.

While more Utah schools stand to make AYP under the three-year average, it's uncertain how many would be affected.

"We won't know (what the effect of applying the rules) would be," Park said. "How many schools would be advanced by it I wouldn't know without looking at the data."