Orem • Every day that teens walk through the front doors of the Utah County Academy of Sciences, the same image greets them: giant, colorful maps matching photos of the school's more than 100 seniors with the colleges they plan to attend.
"It's an encouragement for the kids," said the charter school's principal, Clark Baron.
This is a public school, open to any student, that has had enormous success. One-fifth of its students come from low-income families, but last year, 98 percent graduated. Nearly all went to college, most having already earned associate's degrees in high school. The academy ranks No. 1 in Utah for science achievement on state tests and is tied for the top spot in language arts, out of more than 150 high schools.
State leaders have set a goal of increasing college and career readiness, as well as the percentage of Utahns who get postsecondary degrees or certificates beyond high school, to 66 percent by 2020. But Utah has a way to go, as the results at the Orem charter school are hardly typical.
Utah's overall high school graduation rate is increasing, but is now at about 76 percent. ACT scores are above the national average, but still only about 27 percent of Utah high school students who take the exam score high enough in all four tested subjects to be considered ready for college and careers. About half of the students entering Utah's open enrollment colleges have to take remedial classes, and only about 58 percent of the University of Utah's freshmen graduate within six years of starting, a relatively low rate compared with similar institutions across the nation.
Parents, educators and lawmakers have pointed fingers at one another over the years, assigning blame for these less-than-ideal outcomes. But many are also working to change them.
Some schools, such as the Utah County Academy of Sciences, are taking unique approaches to better prepare students for college. A number of lawmakers also plan this coming session to push bills aimed at the problems. And in what might be the biggest change, state education leaders are implementing new, more rigorous academic standards, called the Common Core, to improve college and career readiness.
Higher standards • Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, said state leaders are implementing the Common Core because current standards were not meeting students' needs.
"I think partially we have allowed our standards to kind of lessen, and that's why we've brought in the Common Core, to ratchet those standards back up to give them the skills they need to succeed," she said.
Several years ago, before Utah adopted its current math standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, gave Utah's old math standards a grade of D. After Utah rewrote its math standards, that same group awarded them an A minus, though it gave Utah's current English standards a grade of C.
Utah is one of 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core standards, which were developed as part of a states-led initiative. Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent, said the Common Core language-arts standards are about a year more advanced than Utah's current ones, and the math standards are about two years more advanced.
Utah sixth- and ninth-graders are already taking new math classes based on the Common Core. Most ninth-graders, for example, instead of taking Algebra I, are now taking Secondary Mathematics 1, which combines elements of algebra and geometry.
The idea behind the new math courses is to integrate concepts to better reflect how math is used in everyday life. Teachers also are changing the way they instruct students, asking them to think more about problem solving and real-world applications rather than just mimicking a process to reach an answer.
Renae Seegmiller, who teaches the new ninth-grade math class at North Sevier High and helped train other teachers during the summer, said she believes the new standards will improve college and career readiness. "It's more rigorous because you're always connecting all the different parts instead of just teaching one little piece."
Coming legislative debates • But the Common Core isn't the only change in the works. Lawmakers will consider a number of proposals this coming legislative session aimed at improving education in Utah. Among them:
• A legislative committee has already recommended a bill that would require school districts to give college and career readiness tests, such as the ACT. The concept has education leaders' support.
• Another bill would replace Utah's current state tests, Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), with computer adaptive assessments, which adapt to students' abilities as they take them to help teachers pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. That bill has also gained initial committee approval and has education leaders' support.
Other upcoming bills are sure to face more controversy:
• A bill to be sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would create tuition tax credits to help poor or academically struggling students attend private school. The bill would allow individuals or corporations to receive tax credits for donating money to scholarship organizations, which would then award kids scholarships. The bill's foes have already characterized it as just another school voucher proposal aimed at weakening public education. But Stephenson believes it could help both struggling students who need different types of schools and those who remain in public schools who, he says, would get more teacher attention.
• Proposals by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, would shift control over education. He wants to see the current 15-member state school board replaced by an elected board made up of eight school-district superintendents and one charter-school representative. The governor and Senate would also have to approve appointment of the higher education commissioner and Utah College of Applied Technology (ATC) president. The governor would have the power to fire them and the state schools superintendent as well.
Reid said he believes the changes would result in better connectivity between the public and higher education, which could lead to solving such problems as too many students entering college unprepared.
• Other potentially controversial bills include one to lower class sizes in grades K-3; another to change teacher-employment contracts; and others that would address school funding.
• Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, hopes this session to secure money for assessment tools to help determine the remediation needs of high school students long before graduation.
He also intends to push changes to the concurrent-enrollment program to ensure its high school participants are taking college-caliber classes. Utah universities are already raising admission standards in an effort to improve completion rates, a move he praised. He says it will put high school students on notice that they can't expect to waltz onto campuses without preparing themselves.
"I want colleges to loudly and widely proclaim they are raising their expectations," said Urquhart. "We don't want to close the door to anyone, so step two is, 'We'll give you an assessment tool to tell you if you are ready. If you are not ready, we will provide the curriculum you need to be ready.' The only thing the student needs to apply is effort."
But if not done carefully, raising the bar could limit enrollment at the same time the state is hoping to increase college participation. Utah Valley University, an open-admission regional school, next year will steer applicants who don't meet a minimum academic standard into a program where they must complete a developmental curriculum before they can take college-level courses.
"It's a conflicting problem because you want students to start college but you also want them to be successful," said Liz Hitch, Utah's associate commission of higher education.
No simple solution • Roberts, the state school board chairwoman, said regardless of the proposals everyone must work together.
"I think looking for individual silver bullet solutions is a disservice to children and education in Utah," she said. "I think it's creating a cohesive overall plan that understands what it's going to take for an individual child to get where they need to be."
That's a message Baron, at the Utah County Academy of Sciences (UCAS), takes to heart. Though his school is one of the top high schools in the state, he admits it's not for everyone. Some students would rather pursue technical training after high school instead of college, for example.
The school partners with Utah Valley University (UVU) to offer college and concurrent-enrollment classes to its students, which is why so many graduate with enough credit to be college juniors. Many traditional high schools also offer concurrent-enrollment classes and college credit classes, but not in the same way UCAS and other early college high schools do.
"They treat you like actual adults, actual college students," said UCAS sophomore Cameron Sokol.
That means students, especially seniors, spend a great deal of time taking college classes on the UVU campus. It's also relatively small compared to many public high schools. That, along with its heavy academic focus, means no orchestra, sports or formal choir. But that's not to say UCAS, which works in cooperation with local school districts, has nothing to teach the state's broader education system.
"One thing I think we've shown the districts is we do have a lot of kids who are capable of being successful at the universities, and as such we ought to have a program to make it possible for them to access those classes because they're certainly ready," Baron said.
Many of the players lawmakers, educators and education and business leaders agree it's important to work together to fix shortcomings in the state's education systems.
"When you look at the data and look at how much we're remediating, the data would suggest we need to improve," said Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative to boost education in Utah. "But more importantly, I think if you're asking me where I think public and higher education leadership is, I think they are both very dedicated toward solutions."
New academic standards
Over the next few years, state education leaders plan to better prepare kids for college and careers by continuing to implement new academic standards in math and language arts, called the Common Core. This school year sixth and ninth-graders are taking new math classes. Here's how the standards will be phased in:
This school year • Sixth-graders and ninth-graders start taking new math classes based on Common Core math standards.
2012-2013 • Students in kindergarten through seventh grade, and in ninth and tenth grades start taking new math courses. Implementation of language arts standards begins in all grades.
2013-2014 • Students in 11th grade start taking new math courses. Implementation of new language arts standards continues.
2014-2015 • Math and language arts standards fully implemented, and students start taking new tests, replacing current Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs).
Second in a two-part series
Day one • Many students not college-ready
Today • Proposals to fix the problem