In the past decade, we’ve written many times about the challenges facing our education system, describing Utah’s declining funding effort for schools while our rankings fell against other states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But today, we have good news to report! Utah has seen a noteworthy jump in reading scores in the latest figures (from 2013) and some recent increases in math scores. Take a look at Utah’s NAEP scores and ranks from 1992 through 2013, and note that our 8th graders now rank 13th highest in the nation for reading:
Back in the 1990s, Utah ranked in the top 15 for reading and math in both 4th and 8th grades. It was an impressive accomplishment, and as a state, we engaged in plenty of patting ourselves on the back for our remarkable students, supportive families, and ability to “do more with less” funding than any other state. For a long time, Utahns held on to that belief that our schools were above average, but the data showed that other states were passing Utah by with stronger academic achievement, leaving our rankings to fall to a low of 28th to 30th among the 50 states.
Utah hit a low point in the rankings around 2007 to 2009, but since that year, we’ve seen some important increases, with 4th grade math rising from 28th to 22nd (19th before falling back a bit), 4th grade reading rising from 30th to 22nd, and 8th grade reading showing a very strong rise from 29th to 13th. We’re still seeing a flat ranking trend in 8th grade math, but the other three are showing significant progress.
What’s the reason for the increase? We don’t know for sure. Perhaps the state’s K-3 reading program, first championed by Governor Olene Walker in the early 2000s, is having an effect. Other programs have also been developed in the past decade, including the UPSTART computer-based preschool reading program championed by Senator Howard Stephenson and the Waterford Institute. The state and the districts have also adopted new ways to assess reading proficiency, designed to help teachers pinpoint their students’ needs. Many efforts have been implemented in the past decade, and they’re starting to work.
What is definitely needed now is a word of congratulations to Utah’s teachers, education officials, and policymakers. What is also needed is continued momentum. Let’s figure out how to build on this success.