SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns aren't strangers to statistics that show the state's low per-student funding amount and an education system that's about average compared with other states.
But when other factors are added to the mix, Utah's schools may be well above average.
Utah's education system ranked 14th best overall in a national report published this week by WalletHub, up from last year's ranking of 21st. The report measured school quality based on 13 metrics, such as reading and math scores, graduation rates, college preparation and school safety.
"There's more to a school than two tests," said the governor's education adviser, Tami Pyfer, referring to Utah's near-average reading and math scores on NAEP, a national student assessment.
Several metrics continue to put Utah in the middle of the pack. The state ranked 25th in its NAEP math scores, 18th in reading and SAT scores, and 23rd in its dropout rate.
Massachusetts, Colorado and New Jersey were respectively the top three states in terms of the quality of their education system. Alaska, Washington, D.C., and Nevada had the lowest overall rankings.
Utah stands better than most states in the percentage of its students who take college preparation exams. The state earned the country's top spot for the percentage of students who take the ACT — not surprising since all students in the state are required to take it their junior year of high school.
But Utah also ranked 12th in the country for the percentage of students taking advanced placement exams in high school.
Utah also ranked especially high — No. 7 in the nation — in school safety, based on having only 5.5 percent of students who reported being threatened or injured at school and the number of incarcerated youths.
WalletHub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez said safety, while an important part of overall school quality, often gets overshadowed by more popular indicators, such as student testing and teacher evaluation.
"It is oftentimes overlooked, and while we did take test scores into account here, we also put these safety metrics into our study because I think it's something that students, teachers and parents are all looking into right now," Gonzalez said.
Pyfer said safety in Utah's classrooms is largely thanks to safety off campus.
"Safe communities promote safe schools," she said. "So I think that says a lot about our communities in general."
When it comes to its rate of bullying incidents, however, Utah ranked 24th on the WalletHub report. Gonzalez said almost 1 in 5 students reported being bullied either at school or through cyber bullying, which is "something I think parents especially play an important role in (preventing) because a lot of times that's done from home and not from school."
Don Olsen, executive director of the Utah Anti-Bullying Coalition, said the report coincides with research done locally on the frequency and impact of bullying in Utah. He said it's a problem that can carry over to other factors that affect school quality.
"We know that if a child does not feel safe and welcome in school, he or she will not reach their full learning and productivity potential," Olsen said. "One child who doesn't reach their potential is one too many."
The coalition, which provides resources for 73 schools, is planning to host 13 assemblies this year to assist student-led efforts to curb bullying. State lawmakers also set aside $175,000 for schools to address the problem.
But more resources are needed as the problem persists in realms outside campus, Olsen said.
"One of the reasons that bullying has not gotten better is because of this cyber bullying phenomenon, where kids can say really unkind things on social media that have a horribly devastating impact," he said. "We believe that by helping students create this culture and climate of kindness, it will impact all kinds of bullying so that none of it in any of its forms is either accepted or tolerated."
It would be nice to move more toward the middle of the pack in funding, but you'll see us moving into the top 10 in performance as well.
–Tami Pyfer, governor's education adviser
The WalletHub report also adds to a decades-old chorus calling out Utah for its low rates of per-pupil spending. This year, Utah ranked second to last in the amount it spends on each student.
But the outlook gets better when compared with educational outcomes in other states. Alaska, for example, had the fourth-highest per-pupil spending rates in the country, yet it ranked 51st in its overall school system quality. Arizona, which was just behind Utah in per-pupil spending, ranked 48th in its overall education system, far behind Utah's rank of No. 14.
Other academic factors, such as student performance in science, were not included in the WalletHub report. In 2011, Utah tied for sixth place with three other states in its average eighth-grade science scores on NAEP, 10 points above the national average.
"I think it does say that Utah is spending the money that they do have wisely, and they're obviously being a little more efficient than other states," Gonzalez said.
This year, the Legislature appropriated $512 million in new money for education in the state. Pyfer said she hopes lawmakers in future years will see Utah's schools as an investment with an especially high rate of return.
"It would be nice to move more toward the middle of the pack in funding, but you'll see us moving into the top 10 in performance as well," she said.
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