Utah Foundation Study: Successful Education Policies and Practices in Utah’s Peer States

Utah Foundation today released a study of educational policies and practices within Utah’s top-ranked peer states—Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota—and benchmark states—Massachusetts and New Jersey—that may have contributed to K-12 student achievement over the last two decades. The peer states were selected based on their similarity to Utah with respect to parental education levels, race/ethnicity of the student population, and percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch. In addition, these states enjoy high achievement on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in fourth and eighth grade and are typically ranked in the top ten nationally.

Utah has lost ground in K-12 student achievement over the past two decades and has not kept pace with top-performing states or with the nation as a whole. Utah’s 1996 13th–place ranking in both fourth- and eighth-grade math on NAEP assessments fell to 21st in fourth-grade math and 25st in eighth-grade math in 2011. Similarly, student achievement rankings in reading fell from 17th and 15th in fourth and eighth grade to 30th and 23rd respectively between 1996 and 2011.

The following are some key findings of the report:

  • Peer and benchmark states employ professional development strategies such as personalized training that emphasizes pedagogy, content knowledge, and classroom practice to improve teacher quality and effectiveness. In addition, many states are experimenting with professional learning communities to enhance performance within schools.
  • More states now use periodic assessments and data-driven tools to inform classroom instruction and teacher practice throughout the school year, rather than only at the end of the school year. Student growth models are being used to track the year-over-year growth of individual students in comparison with similarly-achieving peers.
  • High quality preschool and full-day kindergarten programs targeting at-risk student populations have been shown to provide a strong positive return on investment. Outcomes from programs in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Colorado indicate that participants have reduced grade retention, decreased usage of special education services, and improved student achievement in the early grades.
  • Many states leverage third-party, nation-wide organizations with proven results to intervene early with students at risk of not graduating. Career readiness is addressed through additional counseling to students and parents who have little personal experience or knowledge of college admission requirements, cost, and processes.

“We are excited to see that there are some initiatives from other states that can be adopted or replicated here in Utah to boost our student achievement. There are a several proven programs targeting at-risk high school students that show particular promise,” said Utah Foundation research analyst, Kathryn Zwack.

“Since Utah Foundation first reviewed the success of Utah’s peer states in 2010, we have been interested in learning what those states do differently in their schools to reach their high achievement levels. This research provides a framework for the Legislature’s Education Task Force to consider as it crafts policy solutions for Utah’s education systems,” said Utah Foundation president, Stephen Hershey Kroes.

The ability of Utah’s peer states and benchmark states to improve student achievement over time and to maintain higher test scores is reassuring. The research and case studies presented in the Utah Foundation study illustrate that the implementation of select programs and initiatives, together with targeted investment, can contribute to improved student performance, as well as better prepare students for college and career.

The full report is available free to the public at http://www.utahfoundation.org/reports/?p=1066.