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Educators aren't sure what caused last year's drop in performance, insist the state-generated test is better than the one pushed by Washington

More Utah schools have stumbled in their effort to meet federally mandated No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education standards, according to 2005-2006 data released Thursday. Statewide, 18 percent of schools failed to meet a host of testing and attendance requirements compared with 13 percent in 2004-2005.

The requirements to meet standards did not increase from 2004-2005, so tougher standards do not explain the difference. State education officials said the discrepancy may at least partially be due to a difference in the way they analyzed data from year to year.

But they are at a loss to explain precisely why 152 Utah schools failed to meet minimum federal proficiency standards last year compared with 118 schools the previous year.

"Exactly what's caused it, I don't know," said Judy Park, Utah state Office of Education testing director. "It's going to take us some time to get into the data."

Park on Thursday released reams of testing data from four distinct assessments in a move that speaks of Utah's distaste for NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability system. In releasing results of the state-run Utah Performance Assessment System for Students along with AYP results, Park described U-PASS as a more valid system in that it doesn't give too much weight to the performance of students who face academic challenges. All groups of students must meet federal AYP requirements to demonstrate proficiency in contrast to the Utah system, which considers standards met if lower-performing groups show progress toward proficiency.

A higher percentage of Utah schools demonstrated proficiency under the U-PASS system (84 percent) than under AYP, but critics say U-PASS has the potential to mask the academic achievement gap between white and ethnic minority students. State officials argue their system offers greater accountability because it counts every student rather than ignoring students in statistically small groups.

Regardless, the federal government remains sharply critical of U-PASS and its failure to require 100 percent of students to reach academic proficiency by 2014. State officials, though, continue to promote what they perceive as the superiority of the Utah system, though only the federal system carries significant consequences for schools - specifically those receiving federal dollars for having a high percentage of low-income students.

Nine Utah schools face sanctions this year for failing to pass AYP for two consecutive years, but it was unclear Thursday how parents are being told of the sanctions and what actions will be taken.

Alpine and Jordan school districts, two of the state's largest, saw slight upticks in the number of schools that failed to meet AYP. At Alpine, the issue was often that students new to English and special-education students were not scoring well enough on state tests. Of the 22 Jordan schools that did not make AYP, many missed it because of the low achievement of their special-education students. Educators say that isn't surprising.

"Those are the students we would expect to have the greatest challenge not meeting the goals," said Clyde Mason, Jordan's assessment director.

With AYP standards increasing next year as Utah marches toward the requirement that all students demonstrate proficiency by 2014, even more schools may initially be tagged as not making AYP.

"Every time the status score goes up, a few more schools will be identified for the first time as not making AYP," said McKell Withers, Salt Lake City School District superintendent.

Not meeting AYP can ignite change at a school, as it did at Forbes Elementary in American Fork last school year. Under Principal Larry Dean's tenure, teachers and staff rallied to succeed after failing the previous year.

Teachers dug into data to parse out what instructional methods worked and shared that with colleagues, some of whom acted as literacy coaches.

Officials saw large jumps in the percentage of students who passed state tests.

But transformation isn't always the result of AYP.

At Copperview Elementary in Midvale, a school that now must offer parents a choice of sending their child to another school as a result of not meeting AYP, educators were striving to improve before they knew the outcome of AYP.

At their school, AYP doesn't highlight things he didn't already know, Principal Brent Shaw said.

"It's demoralizing to teachers," he said, noting that the school met the majority of the federal education act requirements.

But if there is a benefit to the AYP analysis - which can hinge on just a small group of students' success or failure - it's that it helps focus educators on the individual student, he said.

"It helps teachers focus on learning rather than teaching."

How AYP differs from U-PASS

* PHILOSOPHY: AYP focuses on group performance, with all students expected to be proficient in math and language arts by 2014. U-PASS focuses on individual student improvement, with all students expected to be proficient or improving.

* DEMONSTRATING PROFICIENCY: To meet AYP, every group within a school must achieve the academic target, and academic targets increase every two years until 100 percent proficiency is achieved in 2014. To meet U-PASS, 80 percent of every group in a school must demonstrate proficiency or must demonstrate a specific level of progress toward proficiency. Both systems require 95 percent participation.