School Testing Results: How Utah Compares to States With Similar Demographics

Download the Full Report

Based on comparisons to national averages in school test scores, it is commonly stated that Utah’s education system performs well, despite having low funding. However, Utah is much different than the average state, with low poverty, many college-educated parents, and a small minority population. Those factors should lead to higher-than-average test scores.

Using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to compare 4th and 8th grade math, reading, and science scores from 1992 through 2009, the report finds that Utah is underperforming compared to states with similar demographics. Among these peers, Utah most often ranks last in these tests. In addition to persistently low peer-state rankings over the past two decades, Utah’s national ranking on these exams has fallen significantly.

Utah Foundation used three criteria to determine demographic peer states:  poverty levels, parental education levels, and ethnic profiles. These “non-school” criteria were selected because of the significant impact non-school factors have on student achievement levels.

Utah has been performing at the low end of its demographic peer group for nearly two decades, most often ranking last among these peer states.  Moreover, with respect to national rankings, Utah has been trending significantly downward and even scores below the national average in fourth grade reading.

Utah’s math scores have increased over the years, but other states’ scores have risen faster, leading to a lower ranking for Utah. Reading scores have been flat for Utah during this period. Utah’s science scores are higher than the national average but at the bottom of peer states.

Minnesota is the one state that remains Utah’s peer over all of the years studied, and its test scores far outpace Utah’s. The gap between Utah and Minnesota has widened in recent years.

Clearly, there is room for improvement in Utah’s classrooms. The fact that similar states are outperforming Utah in the classroom is an issue that policy makers, education associations, teachers, and education officials must further examine if Utah is to move forward and compete with, not only national test scores, but the test scores of the states that have some of the same demographic advantages as Utah.

Read this Research Report


21 Responses to “School Testing Results: How Utah Compares to States With Similar Demographics”

  1. Colton Simons

    I am researching an issue for a merit badge in scouts and i was wondering which branch of government is responsible for this issue, what is being done about this issue, and how young people can help? I would really appreciate if you could help me out. Thank you.

  2. Scott Haslam

    This is an excellent study and sheds light on the real issues. Just the other day I had a co-workers wife (who is an English teacher) come in and try to debunk my favor for student vouchers. I argued that its purpose was to introduce competition into education by giving opportunity for private schools to receive public funds which would break up teachers unions and put pressure on our public school system. I don’t know what your stance is on student vouchers, but I believe your study would make for a great argument for something to break the public education monopoly.

    I actually just stumbled upon this website while at work. I am a political science major at UVU. What was great about your study was its unbiased use of state provided data. In fact I pointed out to this nice teacher that there has been a stalemate in test scores over the decade or 2 and her response was “the numbers lie.” I think I will send her this link.

  3. John Barkley


    I have the details of every fact I referred to on my desktop and much more. They are easy to find.

    First part of first example: “Total expenditures per pupil in public elementary and secondary schools” increased 234 times between 1919 ($48) and 2006 ($11,257), and current expenditures per pupil has increased 245 times ($40 to $9,683). Over that same period, the CPI (All Items, data here) increased only about 12 times. Department of Education.

    Also check the National Center for Economic Statistics, which has multiple studies going back to 1919. One big study going back to 1961 shows that spending, in real 2007 dollars, has gone up 500%. While comparative test have dropped (National Assessment of Educational Progress).

    Or the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) “Report Card on American Education, a State-by-State Analysis 1976– 2000” concluded that “it is clear after studying the data and results that the policies of the past have failed to meet the educational needs of our country’s children. If we continue to spend more money on the existing educational system in an attempt to buy our way to better student achievement, we will condemn another generation of students to mediocrity.”

    I could go on endlessly. In fact, it is hard to miss the facts. You have to go to Teachers’ Union sites to find obfuscation complete enough to not reach the conclusion that the whole system must change or we will surely become a broken ex-empire – without the GDP to fund government worker pensions.

    The inevitability is absolutely clear; the Federal government spends 3 times what it takes in, if true GAP accounting was used ( 2 times with smoke and mirrors). States are in horrible shape, the worst depending on taxpayer bailouts. Build America bonds are a bailout of California, and most is to come. Total tax burdens will go to and stay at maximal levels for decades to try and pay > $100 trillion in entitlements. Medicare is broke. And that is without Baby Boomer burdens and with doctors and hospitals losing money to do the work. Same demographic problem with S.Security, etc.

    It wouldn’t matter if every voter voted to keep medicare (or school funding, or SS or Veterans’ benefits), it wouldn’t matter. The money won’t be there. Our current spending is funded by countries that save, like China, Japan, Korea, Saudi A., and Russia. But all of those have said they are not only cutting back their US bond purchases but are cutting what they now hold. That is why the Fed’s quantitative easing 2 has started. The only way we can keep spending is by printing money.

    So, it does the elderly and teachers and the young no good to believe we are back in the 1960’s. If they believe the government (including their absurd pension gain projections), they will just get to vulnerable times of life and have little or nothing. It won’t matter how much a given group screams and protests.

    You always have to remember “total tax burden”. If a state raise taxes, it comes out of Federal money; the Federal debt will make them take every dollar they can, for decades to come. And taxpayers can’t carry any more, whether they know it or not. One of the most consistent numbers in economics is that America can not sustain > 19% total taxes/GDP for more than a couple of years. If we try, the economy is crushed by the taxes and wealth flees overseas. (We have the highest corporate taxes in the world). Our tax/GDP is now around 26%, depending on the group calculating, and looking at at least 20 new or significantly higher taxes next year just in the Health Care law alone.

    America is collapsing economically, and the Emerging countries are screaming past us: in manufacturing (ie. we don’t make our own laptops or cell phones – or even engineer them), and in education (now 31st in math), and in services (our multi-trillion dollar services exports were financial instruments that were just packaged lies). Our foreign policy has, to be truthful, been to fight wars to keep access to commodities and markets. China and India, in particular, have another policy. They spend the hundreds of billions of dollars of US money to buy the industries and make long-term deals with producers, worldwide. We depend on their good graces to keep breathing. (For one example, see China’s 97% monopoly of the rare earth elements required in nearly all electronics. (Cars, jets, Ipods, everything).

    I could go on and on. This type of research is what I do. The fact is Americans must save their own money, not relying on gov’t. promises or financial bubbles. And if they really do care about the future, they must completely overhaul the educational system, entitlements and the military.

    Those are just the facts. I have TIAA-CREF, medicare and, so my check-book is on the side of the teachers. But I don’t hold the false believe that I am entitled to what I get. I am just happy to get them. I never worked less than 80 hrs./week (always 2 jobs), and I have supported myself since age 16. I could argue that I have earned it. No I haven’t. Nobody has earned the false promises of past government pols. – that will have to suck the money out of impoverished future taxpayers for me to live better than I really earned. Other taxpayers and our kids didn’t make the hidden, selfish deals. We did.

  4. Steve Kroes

    Carolyn, I think you do wonderful work. I’ve always admired your work as a leader in charter schools. You are clearly doing some good things in both of your schools.

    I think your question is valid — that if some schools can accomplish great things within the existing funding system, why can’t all schools do it? But I also think you have some advantages that many schools won’t have. The fact that your schools are schools of choice is huge. Because parents want to send their children to your schools and commit themselves to go through the application/lottery/wait list process and also volunteer at the schools, they are likely a higher-performing set of students, because they have a huge advantage on their side — parents who are actively involved in their education.

    I also think leadership is important. It’s not everything, but it matters. Charter schools have leadership that is unique, compared to district schools. For one, you have a school board for just your school, and this board has genuine authority. They can hire and fire the principal/director and even make direct decisions on hiring and firing of teachers in many cases. There is clear accountability to a board of parents and founders that is much more direct than through a district board. Secondly, your school has YOU! What I mean is that charter schools often benefit from very motivated board members and/or chairs with a passion for what the school does and who have authority to be real leaders at their school. And I think you are an excellent example of that kind of effective leadership. And I believe most (or maybe even all) charter board members are serving with no compensation for all of this leadership they provide.

    I could probably think of other unique characteristics that give your school advantages over most district schools. You might say, OK then, let’s make all schools like charter schools. I’m not sure that would work. Right now something like 6% of Utah students attend charter schools. What might be the upper limit of families that would exercise choice if they had it? Maybe 25%? If so, the other 75% would just stay at their neighborhood school, and choice may have no effect on those schools.

    What do you think?

  5. Steve Kroes

    It may be too late to get your attention, but John, can you provide some links or citations to make your point that thousands of studies since 1919 have concluded money is not correlated to performance? I think it’s quite clear that money doesn’t have a 1:1 correlation with performance, but it’s also clear that some quality improvements cost money, and when Utah’s peers that have a lot more money score so well on these tests, it’s reasonable to conclude that something is being done better in those states with the money they have. The real question behind that, though, is could Utah ever find the money to do some of those things (like get class sizes down to 15, for example)? Probably not on the big things like class size, but what can we do to improve, and what will those improvements cost?

  6. John Barkley

    There is no correlation between money spent on education and student performance.

    That is the conclusion of thousands of studies done in every state and developed country, going back to 1919. It is one of the clearest conclusions in all of social science.

    More money lures more people into education – it makes teacher unions happier – but that does not lead to improved student performance. In fact, it often does exactly the opposite by making parents and politicians believe that things will improve.

    The U.S. is beaten every year by countries that have little more than one book, for the teacher.

    There are clearly things that can be and have been done to improve student performance, but Utah parents and teachers don’t don’t push hard enough for the big changes needed. (Things like cutting way back on sports and extracurricular activities, diverting appropriate students into technical fields, giving merit pay and eliminating that absurd caveman idea tenure, allowing private sector experts to assist in teaching, toughening graduation requirements, etc, etc.).

    Despite the fact that we’re talking about education, critical facts are always left out of the discussion.

  7. Steve Kroes

    This is a great discussion, and I want to add some comments, but it will have to wait till later, hopefully tomorrow — I’m swamped right now! Thank you for posting!

  8. Carolyn Sharette

    One great thing about our school in West Valley (75% free/reduced, 65% minority, 50% ELL) is that because we are charter, when a student moves from apartment to apartment, or from relatives’ home to apartment, etc., they stay at our school. The parents are already accustomed to providing their transportation so they stay in most cases. I wonder if there is some way the public schools could help families feel that their child’s school is “permanent” (if they want it to be) – help them connect to it with loyalty, build a strong relationship with the family so they would make the effort to stay. I think that is very helpful in charters – since the families choose the school, and it is often competitive, they value their enrollment there and will do a lot to maintain it. How could the public schools learn from this and decrease their mobility rates by increasing loyalty of their families?

    We don’t have testing data for 2 years yet (we just started our 2nd year there), but our first year data was strong for growth. For example, 26% of our 4th graders entered our school reading at grade level, but 67% finished the year reading at grade level. So we think our scores will eventually show that even with this demographic we are able to achieve academic success.

    If we do (we think end of 3rd year will be an accurate view of our program effectiveness), then would we be able to say that the funding is not the primary factor in student success, and that increased funding is not necessary for us to close the achievement gap in Utah?

    It is disappointing to see us keep waiting and waiting for increased funding which will not likely happen in the near future (or even the distant future) instead of succeeding with what we have. I believe we could close the achievement gap in Utah entirely with the right academic programs and school structures in place, at our current funding level.

  9. Robert Pitcher

    What is your demographic? Meaningful comparison, as pointed out in the study that this article is about clearly demonstrates the importance of comparing schools with similar demographics? What is your % free and reduced lunch? Diversity? ELL’s? mobility?

    As a charter you have, be default an involved group of parents. LIkely low levels of diversity and poverty, as well as ELL’s. My caucasian students were more then 90% proficient in 3-5 grades at my school for both reading and math. The thing that kills us is mobility. 50% of my students this year and nearly every year have been at the school less then 1 year. Nearly all of them have been to multiple schools over the last 3 years. They have major wholes in their education and it is very difficult to make up for 3 years of moving all over the place and missing months of school at a time.

  10. Carolyn Sharette

    Thank you for your well written comment. I think I can understand the frustration you must experience.

    My question points more to this: if I am able to supply those things you are talking about for the teachers at our schools, and we are also a public school and receive comparable funding, why can’t your school?

    At our schools (American Preparatory Academy – 2 campuses) we have a paraprofessional in every classroom to assist the teacher. We have instructional coaches. We have specialists for music, art, p.e. and dance (all students take these courses). We have developed our curriculum so teachers spend their prep time prepping the lessons and not writing curriculum.

    We pay for all supplies a teacher needs to present the curriculum, including special projects. We also supply all school supplies for all students. We don’t ask parents to bring any school supplies to school. This allows our teachers can use their classroom budgets for incentives, treasure box, or other things similar to that.

    We have one school in a suburban area with middle class students (Draper) and a Title 1 school in West Valley City. Our Draper campus academic results are: 96% of students are proficient on the state language arts CRT. 2nd, 7th and 8th graders achieved 100% proficiency. 100% of Jr. High Algebra and Geometry students were proficient, with 97% overall proficient in Jr. High math. West Valley has only been open a year so our scores are not yet reflective of our efforts there, but large gains were made in one year.

    So, my question is – if we can accomplish this with the same funding you have at your school – what is the difference? How is it possible for us to do this? Believe me, people ask me this question all the time, but I only know our side of the equation, so I can’t answer it.

    As it is true that we achieve this on the same funding (some say we receive a bit less, actually), doesn’t it mean that it can be done? And that more funding isn’t necessary? But perhaps a change in priorities and how the funding is spent?

  11. Courtney Dougall


    I can’t really give a lot of data acquired from board rooms, but I can tell you my opinion from the trenches.

    I work in an elementary school where we have no funding for any type of specialist. We are also very restricted in the supplies we can buy. For example, every year, I have to buy pencils, crayons, paper, etc. for my students because it is against state law to require parents to provide them for elementary students. If I run out of money, that means students don’t have pencils. I’m so stingy because I have such a limited budget, cringing during art projects because every piece of construction paper used appears as a dollar sign to me. I also cannot provide a lot of hands-on learning experiences that require supplies or equipment because I don’t have the money. No specialists mean that I am preparing lessons for EVERY subject, stretching the resource of the educator (me) very thin. If I had another individual or individuals to help with the preparation, I could spend more time, resources, and energy in teaching core subjects, such as reading and math. However, state law requires I teach all subjects and even sets an amount of recommended time. On top of that, I’m not a member of any union, so I can’t speak for them as far as salary and money that is used overall for financial compensation, but I honestly started to cry this week when I received my paycheck and saw that for all of the work, time, and effort I had put in, my gross salary was around minimum wage and this after completing my master’s degree in hopes of a significant raise. I’m not saying that I give less effort because of my paycheck, but money is a motivator. Sometimes it’s hard to go the extra, extra mile when I know I’m working for free and my own family and community needs me as well as my students.

    This probably sounds like whining, but I feel if I had a little extra money in my classroom, even if it was to just buy supplies and provide higher levels of learning, I could be a better teacher and provide higher results. Maybe not through standardized test results, but through how my students view education and learning. Let’s face it, worksheets are much cheaper and prepare students much better for standardized tests than well-thought and prepared experiments, hands-on learning opportunities, etc., but these are proven to significantly improve learning experiences and knowledge intake of students.

  12. Carolyn Sharette

    If any school is able to “beat the odds” and produce higher performing students, on the budget we have from the state, then how can we conclude that more funding is needed to increase student performance? If even ONE school can do this, doesn’t it disprove the idea that more money is required?

    I am sincere in asking this question and hope there is a response that will help me understand why we always think more money is needed to raise student achievement. Even if our funding effort has decreased – if student achievement can be raised in any school on today’s funding dollar, isn’t that what we should be paying attention to?

  13. John Barkley

    When teachers’ unions say we will need higher taxes they never, ever, ever, ever show the huge amount of taxpayers’ money that has been poured into teachers’ pensions, a tax-sucking source that studies have shown conclusively has no relationship to student performance. (Nearly $38 billion in the last 2 years alone). They say the new tax money is to help the children, but the educators don’t seem to understand basic financial math. It will be those that are currently children that would have to pay those impossible pensions. When they realize how they have been conned and used as tools of manipulation, the former students will be furious.

    We graduate students that are years behind their global competitors then sock them with massive debt to pay impossible pensions to their failed teachers. We have to make a huge change in our school system if we aren’t to continue declining.

    The huge National Compensation Survey completed March, 2010 showed that, “Employees of state and local governments are more likely to have employer-provided pensions, health insurance, life insurance and paid sick leave than their counterparts in private industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And their median wage is 40% higher”.

    So comparing state workers to state workers is meaningless. The important comparison is teachers to taxpayers. By adding increasing tax burdens they create declining job competitiveness, like declining student competitiveness. They are a major reason the source of their own salaries and benefits is drying up. The 1960’s are long past. They can’t force time backwards with higher taxes. American workers can no longer graduate with minimal reading, math and science skills and live middle-class lifestyles. The world’s largest high-tech companies have said they can’t see ever building another plant in the US. Our rich service exports, financial instruments, have been seen to be corrupt to the core.

    I could go on with data and details. Let it just be said that greed and tolerance of poor performance must end now! Or it won’t be turned around for at least another generation.

    This is from someone with 27 years of schooling, who has taught at high school, college, graduate and post graduate levels in 3 different states.

  14. Steve Kroes

    If you read the report and the appendices, you’ll see how thorough the comparisons are. Cherry picking implies arbitrariness. This is anything but that.

  15. Efialtis

    The flaw in this study is the reduction of the data sets.
    Your data excludes all but a few states that match some demographic. This is also known as “cherry picking”.
    If we reduce our data we design the study to prove a conclusion…

  16. Steve Kroes

    The point of the study is show what potential Utah has, not to justify our current situation. You seem to be saying that you want to excuse Utah’s standing among peer states by pointing to reasons why we can’t afford to be better. I also realize affordability is a problem, but it is instructive to see what our potential is so we can know what to aspire to.

    I hope you read the study that I linked. It’s not the same as what you propose as a measure, but it clearly shows that Utah once could lay claim to the idea that despite low per-pupil funding, we were at least doing all we can to fund our education system. When we had a funding effort in the top 10 in the nation, that was true. But our funding effort is well below average now, and all we can say is we have low funding. Not low funding despite our best efforts. Just low funding. We lost our edge in funding effort by focusing more on tax cuts and transferring growth in income tax to other parts of the budget — mostly health care, transportation, and for a while, prisons.

  17. Keith L. Breinholt

    Steve, I just recently moved back to Utah from Washington, we moved there in 1997, so I am was not aware of any trend in reducing education spending.

    Maybe I don’t understand what you use for a proportion. Do you divide the average income by the average number of students in a home? If not, you will get a disproportionate view of ability to pay into education, taxes, etc.

    Even if an individual earns $100k, if that individual has 12 children to provide for there ability to pay for school, clothes, food, housing education, etc. is not significantly different from a head of house who earns $60k but has only 2 children.

    We are going to have to disagree, because the cost of a pupil does not stop when the leave the school doors. And the number of children in a demographic is extremely significant when figuring a budget.

    If you don’t provide those demographics then your study is fundamentally flawed.

    I served as a city councilmember in Washington for a while and helped our school district work through the numbers. The number of students per household/wage earner is extremely significant in determining ability to fund education. That number determines the size of levies, the amount of state funding to a district and city services, etc. Without that demographic I can pull all kinds of numbers and reports that become meaningless in the face of demographic reality.

    I value education more than the majority of the people you will meet. I’ve worked to get the funding and curriculum changes necessary for my students and districts many times. Unless we deal with facts in context the numbers become effectively useless. Useless for planning and useless for comparisons.

    Average income divided by the average number of students per income is the real demographic that will tell you the ability to fund education.

  18. Steve Kroes

    Keith, take a look at our report on education funding effort:
    It used to be true that Utah spent a high amount relative to our incomes on education, and we could say that we were at least trying as hard as we can to fund schools. That began to slip in the mid 1990s, and it’s simply no longer true. These numbers are not on a per-worker basis, but in proportion to our incomes, which is a better measure than per worker, because it accounts for what we can actually afford.

    The proportion of the state budget spent on education isn’t useful, because many states rely more on local funding. Utah is high for state funding but low for local funding. That’s because the Legislature controls a big chunk of local funding with the statewide minimum basic levy (property tax) for schools, and they have reduced that tax rate in most years since 1995. This provides a benefit to taxpayers, but it also reduces education funding.

    See my earlier comment about the number of students per household. I am not convinced it’s important.

  19. Keith L. Breinholt

    After reading the report I appreciate the effort that went into your study but it has a basic flaw.

    When you compared demographics did you factor in the number of students in the homes of the income earners?

    Yes, we spend significantly less ‘per pupil’ than any other state in the union. I did not see any consideration for the number of pupils in the demographic.

    The reason this is significant is I believe you will find that we are already spending considerably more, per wage earner, than any other state in the union. I may be wrong, but until I see the actual numbers this is my best estimate and I believe it will prove to be true.

    Two other considerations that I would like to see with those comparative demographics is if those states you compared us to have a balanced budget and the proportion of their budget that they spend on education.

    The reason those two are significant is that government has a responsibility to maintain infrastructure and public services. When you have a balanced budget if I add more money in one area I have to pull it from another.

    Education spending per wage earner, balanced budget and proportion of budget spent on education.

  20. Steve Kroes

    Utah actually has average family income and quite high household income (around 10th highest) compared to the U.S. I’m not sure there is anything conclusive about larger families leading to lower achievement. You are correct that higher graduation rates could mean more low-performing students remain in the system, but this analysis examined 4th and 8th graders, which is before the age that children drop out of school. Low funding could certainly be a reason for lower achievement, but controlling for that factor then basically says we shouldn’t expect good performance because we won’t pay for it. This study shows our performance is not up to par with states that are like Utah, and it’s certainly fair game to say that low funding is one of the reasons this is happening. It wouldn’t be useful to excuse the low funding by only comparing to states with low funding. Besides, there really are no peers to compare with Utah’s funding level — we are clearly an outlier on the low end.

    This report isn’t intended as an indictment of our education system. It’s a plain and straight-forward look at where we should be performing with these demographics. And because we’re not up to par with those peer states, you can argue that we need more funding to help us get there. You can also argue that significantly higher funding is highly unlikely in this state with a tax burden that’s already fairly high, and your focus could be on innovation. Personally, I think we need to focus on what innovations will move us forward and then make the case for funding increases to implement the highest-value reforms.

    Thanks for commenting.
    – Steve

  21. John C. Clark

    According to this study “Utah is much different than the average state, with low poverty, many college-educated parents, and a small minority population. Those factors should lead to higher-than-average test scores.”

    I agree that Utah is much different than the average state, but we also have low family income, large families, low state revenues, and more students staying through school to graduate Those factors should lead to LOWER-than average test scores.

    It’s all in how we define our demographic peers.

Comments are closed.