It seems at times that gloom surrounds most reports on the status of public education in Utah. Graduation rates are significantly lower than the state once touted; the number of dropouts, especially among the growing Latino population, is alarmingly high.
And there are the perennial statistics that color the image of education in the Beehive State: largest class sizes and lowest per-pupil expenditure in the nation; underpaid teachers and a third of college freshmen needing remedial courses.
But last week, Utah's eighth-graders gave education watchers a reason to celebrate.
In a study that links U.S. standardized-test results with testing done internationally, Utah's middle-school students scored higher in science than students in all but five countries. And in math, Utah eighth-graders outperformed their peers in all but 10 countries and provinces.
The study looks at test results in 2011 in 38 countries and nine subnational entities, such as Canadian provinces.
Utah eighth-graders are in good company at the top of the rankings. Overall, they scored 547 in science, just three points below a "high" performance rank. The nations scoring higher were Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Japan and Finland.
Utah students' scores were statistically about the same as Finland's and the scores of students in Alberta, Canada; Russian Federation; and Slovenia. They shared the ranking with students in eight states Alaska, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming and Department of Defense schools.
Utah students' scores in math were 10 points above the international average of 500. The 10 countries and provinces where students outperformed Utahns on math tests were Republic of Korea; Singapore; Chinese Taipei; Hong Kong; Japan; Russian Federation; Quebec, Canada; Israel, Finland and Ontario, Canada.
Utah students must compete for jobs in a global marketplace, so favorable comparisons to student achievement in other countries is important.
And, when many of the most lucrative jobs are in technology and engineering, a top-notch education in science and math is vital. Students now in middle school will deal with future global challenges including climate change and accompanying droughts, wildfires and extreme weather; health and medicine; and population increase.
Utah children should be ready, along with their peers in other countries, to take on those challenges.