SALT LAKE CITY — Utah school administrators have a new system to track school progress and performance.
The Utah State Office of Education on Friday unveiled the state's new system with the release of Utah Comprehensive Accountability System data for the 2011-12 school year.
The system reports are based on scores from end-of-year Criterion Referenced Tests — as well as graduation rates at the high school level — which assess a student's proficiency in math, science and language arts. Schools are scored on a 600-point scale, which takes into account both the number of students who test proficient on the CRTs as well as the number of students progressing toward proficiency.
A full report of the state's public schools is available through the office of education's website. Parents can also access an online portal to view a more detailed report of individual schools, which includes a comparison to the state's average score — 398 for high schools and 435 for elementary and junior high schools.
When asked what the scores say about the success or failure of Utah's public schools, John Jesse, assessment and accountability director for the office of education, said that because the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System is in its first year, it's hard to draw a qualitative conclusion about what the numbers suggest.
This report sets a standard that parents, teachers and administrators will be able to use as a comparison in the future to track growth and decline, he said.
"It's the first question parents and policy makers will ask," he said, "but that's a question, in the first year, that you can't really answer."
Jesse hopes parents will look at the reports for their children's schools and schools in their district. But he said parents should not take a below- or above-average score as a sign of total success or failure, but instead should look into what is contributing to the scores and what can be done to help them improve.
"Rather than make judgements let's ask questions," he said. "Is the school doing something to make that (score) happen?"
The Utah Comprehensive Accountability System replaces both the Utah Performance System for Students (U-Pass) as well as the federal adequate yearly progress (AYP) reports mandated by No Child Left Behind. Utah, as well as most states, was granted a federal waiver freeing the state from several of the AYP requirements in exchange for locally-developed educational reforms.
Jesse said that both U-PASS and AYP had their strengths, but the two measuring systems sometimes gave a seemingly-conflicting look at Utah schools. For example, he said that AYP did a good job of highlighting the performance of specific groups of students, such as minorities, but looked solely at proficiency and did not account for student progress. On the other hand, U-PASS tracked growth in student proficiency, but had no ties to the federal benefits associated with No Child Left Behind.
He described the two systems as side-by-side windows, where each gives a clear view of the objects outside, but when you try to look through both of them at once you see different images.
"Individually they're transparent," he said. "Together, they're unclear."
With the flexibility gained from the No Child Left Behind waiver, Jesse said it was important to officials to create an accountability system that would give each school an opportunity to demonstrate success.
"The majority of schools are doing a good job and some of them are doing a great job," he said.
Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System is the right first step to improving school accountability. Much like Jesse, Bleak said the reports will become ever more informative as each new year adds to the data. But he added that the scores already offer insight that schools can hopefully use to learn from one another and improve overall.
"I see schools that are outstanding, and that doesn't surprise me, and other schools that are in other places," he said.
The scores range from two schools with a perfect 600 (Fox Hills Magnet School and Morningside Magnet School) to others in the low 100s, but officials add that non-numerical factors like demographics and socioeconomics play a roles in a school's score. The two 600-point earning schools are magnet schools that cater to gifted students and several of the lowest-scoring schools are alternative high schools or centers for students with disabilities.
"There's a reason for some of the lows and a reason for some of the highs," USOE spokesman Mark Peterson said.