Monday, April 18, 2005

Utah’s state Legislature begins a special session today to act on a bill that would assert the state’s independence from the federal No Child Left Behind Act in favor of state goals for student reading and math achievement.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, brought the GOP-controlled Legislature back into session after the U.S. Department of Education insisted that all Utah schools meet adequate yearly progress, as directed by the federal law, even if they do not receive federal funds under the Title I program for poverty-level districts.

Last year, 16 percent of Utah’s 803 public schools did not make adequate yearly progress as the federal law defines it, and 16 schools were sanctioned as needing improvement because they failed to make adequate progress two years in a row.

The state wants to replace the federal progress measure with the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS).

A bill that unanimously passed the state House in the regular legislative session last month and has overwhelming support in the state Senate would make state achievement goals under U-PASS primary when state goals and federal requirements conflict.

Twenty state Senate Republicans signed a letter to President Bush dated March 7 asserting a states’ rights position.

“At a minimum, we are looking for a written statement that assures the State of Utah full control of governance and accountability measures in Utah’s schools. In addition, we need local control of educator qualifications, certification and licensure,” the senators wrote.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education have objected to Utah’s so-called “growth model” to measure student progress from year to year, rather than No Child Left Behind-required standardized tests to measure progress among racial and ethnic groups, English learners, students from low-income families and students with disabilities.

“The U-PASS identification plan includes disaggregation of subgroups and accountability for them,” said Patti Harrington, state superintendent of public instruction. “It does so by using multiple measures of student performance, not just the one core test that NCLB uses.”

Mrs. Harrington said the state plan to measure student growth is better than the federal “adequate yearly progress” requirement because more than 80 percent of Utah’s 489,000 public-school students are already proficient in reading and math at their respective grade levels, but the federal plan requires just 65 percent proficiency for progress.

Federal officials balked at Utah’s plan, saying it does not adequately hold schools accountable for the large achievement gap between white students and minorities, which Mrs. Harrington said is “pernicious.”

The state’s disabled students are testing 46 points below the state average in reading and math, American Indians 42 points and Hispanics 27 points behind.

Mrs. Harrington said the gap is large because “our highest learners outpace almost every state in the nation, and so the gap is widened by our tremendous achievement at the top.”

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