Occasional Paper – Vol: 3

As Utah continues its efforts to attract strong companies with high-wage jobs to the state, it needs to pay attention to its standing on national education rankings, which business leaders and families typically examine carefully as they contemplate relocation. While Utah’s current performance on K-12 and higher education measures does show some bright spots, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Every two years, Utah fourth and eighth grade students participate in a national assessment called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2005, Utah’s fourth graders were ranked 19th in reading and 23rd in mathematics. In 2015, Utah’s fourth graders ranked 13th in both reading and math. In 2005, Utah’s eighth graders ranked 28th on the NAEP reading exam and 29th in math. In 2015, Utah’s eighth graders finished in a tie for ninth (with Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wyoming) and 15th in math.

This is certainly encouraging, but the results are tempered somewhat by how Utah has advanced in the rankings. Most of Utah’s “progress” is due to the decline in performance in other states, not because Utah students are doing that much better. In fact, Utah’s overall NAEP scores in both the fourth and eighth grades showed no measurable change between 2013 and 2015.

Moreover, Utah has a significant and persistent achievement gap. A recent study by the Urban Institute found Utah’s NAEP scores, when adjusted for demographics (including race/ethnicity, language, disability and socioeconomic status), are among the lowest in the country, ranking above only West Virginia, Hawaii and Alabama. The relatively high performance of Utah’s white and upper income students is masking some very poor performance by Utah’s poor and minority students, a reality that has been highlighted by at least one national report card.

In 2014, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published its lated “Leaders and Laggards” report, giving Utah an overall grade of “C” for academic achievement, and a grade of “B” for progress made since 2007. However, the same report gave Utah a grade of “C” for academic achievement of low-income and minority students, and a grade of “D” for progress made with these students since 2007.

Utah has also demonstrated progress in high school graduation rates. In 2015, Utah’s graduation rate was 84 percent, which is an increase of 15 percent since 2008. However, Utah still ranks only 25th in the country, largely due to other states making even greater strides on this metric. In 2015, Iowa led the nation with a high school graduation rate of 90 percent.

According to the Lumina Foundation (which used 2012 U.S. Census data), Utah currently ranks 18th in the United States for the percentage of working age adults (age 25-64) with at least an associates degree, at 41.4 percent. If other states remained constant in this category, Utah would need to increase its percentage to at least 45.3 percent to be in the top ten.

The most comprehensive assessment of the state of America’s public schools, the annual “Quality Counts” report by Education Week ,gave Utah an overall grade of “C-“ on its 2015 report card. Utah received a “C” grade for K-12 academic achievement and a “D-“ for school finance.

In short, Utah’s performance on national education measures is a mixed bag. Improvement has been made in several categories. Yet we must stay the course to ensure substantial, sustainable improvement. Utah’s ability to continue strong economic development depends on having a solid reputation for quality schools.