A new school assessment system designed to replace the federal No Child Left Behind eliminates some of the onerous weaknesses of the Bush-era NCLB. But Utah's education officials must be careful that it does not also throw out the federal program's strength forcing schools to focus on underachieving students.
Prior to NCLB, schools averaged all test scores, and districts and the state focused mainly on the averages. Truly left behind were students of minority ethnic and racial groups, those from low-income and non-English-speaking families and those with disabilities.
Using averages too often meant that struggling children at the low end were balanced by the high achievers at the other end, and many of the former merely slipped through the cracks. They were promoted beyond their ability, and many never learned to read well or do basic math.
The NCLB system of disaggregating those groups and looking at the achievement of children in each subgroup separately has improved learning for those children.
But NCLB went too far in labeling schools as failing when even one subgroup did not perform to a certain standard or make "adequate yearly progress." And its idealistic requirement that all teachers be certified in the subject they teach was not helpful to rural schools where teachers often teach many subjects, and they are scarce.
Still, some schools were rightly closed under NCLB that were unable to improve and should have been closed. And it forced schools to do more to help low achievers.
Under the new Utah system, each school is assessed according to student achievement and progress, and each is assigned a number, up to the highest possible score of 600.
Schools are rated based on test scores in English-language arts, math and science, and high schools are also judged on their graduation rates. That part of the assessment is uncomfortably similar to the old system of paying attention primarily to averages. What could keep schools' focus on at-risk and underachieving students is the requirement that schools also be judged on their progress in improving the scores.
Improving to any substantial degree will require schools to maintain focus on the students at the low end, those who pull down the average. So the improvement portion of any school's overall rating must remain at least as heavily weighted as the average test scores.
Under this system, it would be all too easy to slip back into the old ways that contributed to Utah's wide achievement gap between minority and white students and its embarrassingly poor showing in graduation rates.