State says Canyons District filed 'false report' of test scores

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SANDY — State education officials are accusing the Canyons School District of filing a "false report" of reading test results.

Canyons officials, however, say the results are not false, but are simply scores from a different test than the one the state requires. Instead of following a state education rule dictating the use of a specific reading test for first-, second- and third-grade students, Canyons administrators decided to use their own tests.

But Utah State Office of Education officials say they weren't told that the district was ignoring the rules. And the paperwork submitted by the district made it appear that the required tests had been administered when they really were not.

Brenda Hales, associate superintendent of Student Achievement and School Success with the Utah State Office of Education
Brenda Hales, associate superintendent of Student Achievement and School Success with the Utah State Office of Education

“It never occurred to me that someone would hand me in a report that didn’t have the data in it that it purported to have,” said Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for the USOE Instructional Services Division.

State requirements

The ability to read can determine where a person ends up in life. To make sure Utah’s youngest students are reading at grade level, Utah lawmakers passed the Reading Requirements for Student Advancement bill (SB150) during the 2010 legislative session.

The law ordered all school districts and charter schools to notify parents mid-year when a first-, second- or third-grader is reading below grade level, as determined by multiple assessments. It also required the State Board of Education to make rules defining those reading levels.

The board decided districts and charters must use at least two different assessments to identify students not reading at grade level — one to be determined by the state office of education. The state chose the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or DIBELS test of oral fluency as a common measure to gauge reading levels and compare districts across the state.

Money also played a critical role in that test choice because SB150 provided no funding for testing materials, said Hales.

“One of the advantages to it (DIBELS) is that it’s free,” Hales said. “Basically the publishers allow you to download it for free and it’s easy to give. It doesn’t take much in terms of professional development. It’s basically about a two- to five-minute test. All of our information on that test showed that it was comparable in terms of its reliability and validity of other important tests.”

Allegations of noncompliance

The USOE thought all the districts/charters had complied with state rules and turned in DIBELS data by the February 2011 deadline. But when KSL began investigating information that the Canyons School District had dropped its reading benchmarks, we discovered that Canyons had not used the DIBELS tests with students.

At first, the state was reluctant to believe the Canyons District had broken the rules, especially since it had received a report containing what appeared to be DIBELS data. But a series of anonymous complaints from people around the state slowly chipped away that confidence.

"I have a sister who teaches in Canyons, and they didn’t do the DIBELS," Hales said. "And I have a son who’s a principal and they’re concerned because they didn’t do the test they were supposed to do. And so I called Canyons at that point and they confirmed that they had not done the test.”

State officials say they were disappointed by the discovery. The data entered into that state report came from a different reading skills test called AIMSweb, a testing system purchased by the Canyons School District prior to the passage of SB150.

Canyons' defense

“I stand fully and unequivocally behind what we’re doing,” Canyons School District Superintendent David S. Doty said when questioned about the different test.

David Doty, superintendent of the Canyons School District
David Doty, superintendent of the Canyons School District

Doty said his district is in full compliance with Utah law. He alleged the State Board of Education broke the law when it ordered schools to use a specific test.

"The legislation does not require a single test to be designated by the state," Doty said. “The legislation doesn’t require DIBELS.”

Believing the state is over-reaching its authority by naming one test as the measure that all districts/charters must use, the Canyons district decided to ignore the administrative rule and give students the AIMSweb tests instead. Doty contends the state knew exactly what his schools were doing.

“We informed them verbally that we were using AIMS when we submitted the data," he said.

But an email from the state literacy coordinator indicates state education officials did not know. In it, Reed Spencer wrote, “I can report emphatically that no one in the Canyons School District told me they were not submitting DIBELS data.”

The report turned in by the Canyons District gives no indication the district used any test other than DIBELS or was submitting a different set of scores. As a result, Hales said Canyons turned in a "false report."

When asked about that, Doty replied, “We've given them the equating study. We've not done anything deceptive. I just wholeheartedly disagree with that."

The equating study Doty mentioned is research prepared by the Canyons assessment to show the DIBELS and AIMSweb tests as virtually identical.

It would be similar to if I wanted to pay my taxes in Canadian money. It's very similar. They use the words 'dollar,' 'penny,' 'cents.' But it's not the same.

–Brenda Hales, USOE


“It’s not fair to double-test kids when 98 out of 100 times you get to the identical place. That’s not an efficient use of time for kids and instruction,” said Hal Sanderson, director of research and assessment for the Canyons School District.

The USOE said it never received the equating study until after it learned of the "false report" from Canyons. Hales pointed out that any time you manipulate data to make one test be exactly equal to another, you are still manipulating it.

"It would be similar to if I wanted to pay my taxes in Canadian money," said Hales. “It's very similar. They use the words 'dollar,' 'penny,' 'cents.' But it's not the same."

The state has no issue with the AIMSweb testing system, per se. Hales said it would have made the perfect second assessment called for in the law.

Canyons lowers reading benchmark

Besides giving students the AIMSweb reading tests instead of DIBELS, KSL has confirmed Canyons did lower benchmark scores this school year. These are the very numbers set to determine whether students are reading on grade level. A lower benchmark could be seen as a way to give more students a passing mark.

Sanderson said the benchmark changes were not an attempt to artificially inflate the reading skills of students. He said the district needed to analyze one full year of scores before it could settle on numbers that would best track student progress and isolate the students who are really struggling.

“We never said, 'We're going to do an educated guess and that's the benchmark that's going to be here for time and all eternity.' We wanted to validate it,” he said.

Canyons officials say its standards are still higher than the state's standards. The State Board of Education meets Thursday and the members will be officially notified of the Canyons reading report then.

“My hope is we can help them understand again, how important it is when you’re part of the public trust to make sure you’re accurate, that you provide accurate reports," said Hales, “that you don’t falsify data.”


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Lori Prichard and Kelly Just


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