Public education in the state of Utah continues to make significant improvements in raising the level of student achievement. As I am in schools on a regular basis, I am extremely impressed to see hard-working teachers and staff members doing extraordinary things for children every day. Schools are communicating regularly with parents to better understand the needs of all students. Businesses and church groups are providing volunteers in schools to tutor at-risk students. This community-wide effort is definitely impacting student achievement, which is well-documented through an analysis of different data points.
For example, despite our state becoming more diverse with increased percentages of students in minority, low-income, and historically at-risk sub-groups, we are seeing steady increases in the percent of students who are demonstrating proficiency in reading. At the third-grade level, the greatest increase in overall CRT (end-of-level criterion referenced tests) has been seen among Hispanic/Latino students -- an 11 percentage point gain in student reading proficiency from 2005 to 2012. Significant gains have also been made by students with disabilities and economic disadvantaged students.
Although it's difficult to isolate a single causal factor for such significant increases in students' reading proficiency, it seems apparent that the statewide K-3 reading initiative, which was implemented in 2005, has had a tremendous impact. The K-3 reading initiative is a program in which a reading coach was placed in every elementary school. Funding was provided by the state with a match from each local school district. Students who have had access to reading coaches during their K-3 years have shown noticeably higher CRT proficiency rates. This exposure to the K-3 reading program is especially evident when you look at last year's eighth-grade students' (who were in 1st grade when the initiative was originally implemented) reading scores. Ninety percent of Utah's eighth-grade students are proficient in reading -- an increase of 13 percent since 2005! This is compelling data that reinforces the value of elementary reading coaches.
Utah's advanced students are also demonstrating significant increases in achievement. Utah public education students achieved a remarkable trifecta in the 2013 school year by increasing overall participation in Advanced Placement (AP) exams by more than 8 percent, increasing minority participation in those same exams between 11 percent and 23 percent, and increasing the overall success rate on the exams by more than 7 percent. A total of 20,638 Utah public school students took 33,217 AP exams during the 2012-13 school year with 22,398 of those earning a passing mark. This represents an increase of 8.4 percent of students taking the exams, an 8.7 percent increase in the number of exams taken, and a 7.1 percent increase in exams passed.
Utah's minority student population also increased its participation rates. The College Board noted that American Indian participation increased 21.1 percent, African American 22.5 percent, and Hispanic 23.3 percent. White participation increased 8.5 percent. Utah public school students earned college credit on AP exams at a rate of 67.4 percent, easily besting the national rate of 56.9 percent.
Despite spending less per student than any other state in the nation, in 2010 Utah was selected among the top 20 states in the country in "Chance for Student Success" by Education Week (Source: Education Week, Jan. 14, 2010). That same year, the United States Chamber of Commerce ranked Utah number one in "Return on Investment by State."
While such results are promising, it is troubling to see that Utah's effort to fund education has steadily decreased in the past 20 years. The Utah Foundation noted that there has been a significant decline in the public education funding effort (defined as public education revenues per $1,000 of personal income) since 1995. The Utah Foundation reported that in 1992, Utah ranked eighth in the nation in funding effort. In 2000, that ranking had slipped to 17th. By 2009, Utah was 26th in the country. That ranking continues to slip.
We can do better. We call upon legislators, business leaders, and parents to increase the commitment to public education. Data shows that investing in public education in Utah pays significant dividends! Our children will benefit by our increased commitment.
Stephens is the superintendent of the Weber School District.