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Don't settle for mediocre

Recently released ACT scores for 2010 high school graduates show Utah's public education system to be the literal epitome of mediocrity. In order for that reality to change, Utahns must trade in their antiquated preconceptions for new learning models.

A multiple-choice standardized test, the ACT plays an integral role in college admissions. High school upperclassmen usually sit for the ACT near the end of their junior year or during the fall semester of their senior year. The four subjects tested are math, reading, English and science. Scores range from 1-36 and, nationally, the average score is 21.

When ACT Inc. released its annual slew of data on Tuesday, detailing how recent high school graduates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia fared on the test, at first glance it was easy to view Utah's average score of 21.8 as a moderate victory for the Beehive State. After all, one could reliably conclude that, in a state where the average per-student expenditure of $5,683 ranks dead-last in the United States, it's a minor miracle for Utah's average ACT score to clock in a tick above the national number.

But digging a little deeper reveals that Utah's ACT test-takers shouldn't be graded on a proverbial curve because of per student stinginess. Spending more money on education is no guarantor of improved results. Indeed, consider that for every $100 Utah spends on a student, Washington, D.C,, spends $252 on one of its students — and the average ACT score in the District of Columbia is a below-average 19.8.

Additionally, although Utah's average score of 21.8 is above the national average, Utah ranks only 26th out of 51 geographic areas — placing the Beehive State smack-dab in the middle nationally. And even though Utah's average score has risen from 21.5 to 21.8 over the last decade, Utah's state ranking has actually dropped since 2000, when the state finished tied for 20th. Also alarming is the fact that the number of Hispanics taking the ACT in Utah has doubled since 2005, but the average performance of Hispanic test-takers has dropped from 18.9 to 18.6. If those two trends continue unabated, the average ACT score of Utah students will get weighed down considerably in the future.

Public education in Utah appeared to be on its way to a better tomorrow when, in late 2008, then-Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. aligned the state with the Bill Gates-backed New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce and its "Tough Times or Tough Choices" report calling for education reform. But with Huntsman's departure for the ambassadorship to China, the commitment to implement the "Tough Times" recommendations fizzled. Gov. Gary Herbert subsequently formed the Commission on Education Excellence, but the new creation has yet to convey a creative vision or yield much substantive fruit.

Huntsman won't be returning any time soon, but perhaps somebody in state government can channel the savvy and vision Huntsman showed in strategically aligning Utah with "Tough Times or Tough Choices." Because without similar leaps of faith, public education in Utah will never successfully abandon mediocrity for true excellence.