Utah’s testing report card shows the state improving scores in math and reading — but leaving behind minority and low-income kids

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fourth grade student works on a math problem in 2015.

While Utah has inched up again in national rankings for math and reading test scores, the state’s minority and low-income students continue to lag behind — and some are now performing worse.

The results, released Wednesday as part of the Nation’s Report Card for 2019, show that progress has not been shared across all demographics, particularly American Indian and Latino students. Those who could use more support in schools do not appear to be getting it. And some say they’re being forgotten entirely.

“We need more strategies that specifically address communities of color to help those kids achieve,” said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a Utah-based Latino outreach group. “Right now, we’re not doing that.”

The tests are conducted every two years among a representative sample of students in most states to capture a national snapshot of learning that’s used by the Department of Education. Called the National Assessment of Education Progress, the 500-point exams focus on fourth grade and eighth grade.

In Utah, the average fourth grade math score was 244 and, for reading, 225. For eighth grade, math was 285 and, for reading, 267.

Each of those climbs above the national averages by at least four points per subject.

And the state saw a bump in nearly all of its summative rankings since 2017, finding its highest achievement in fourth grade reading, where it sits at No. 4 in the United States. It was previously No. 10. (Its lowest ranking for 2019 was No. 16 for eighth grade math, which dropped two points and two spots from 2017, the only subject to see an overall decline both in the state and in the country.)

While those improvements are impressive, Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said: “There are still problems.” Students of color in Utah, as well as those categorized as low-income, lag significantly behind their peers in nearly every subject and grade level. It’s a troubling trend that continues from the last results.

The gaps between white students and minorities range from four points to 41 this year. For fourth grade math and eighth grade reading, there were declines for all students of color counted.

The largest discrepancies, in particular, exist for American Indian students in Utah. For eighth grade reading, white students earned an average of 273 points in the 2019. American Indian students scored 232.

In 2017, the last time the results were released, the population wasn’t even counted due to “insufficient sample size.” The demographic accounts for about 1% of all students in the state.

Harold Foster, the American Indian specialist with the Utah Board of Education, has previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that he doesn’t believe enough is being done to support American Indian students and the state isn’t allocating money for needed programs. “It’s not good enough,” he said.

Peterson suggested that would be a new focus for the state school board going forward. “Equitability is one of the top priorities,” he added.

Currently, several districts in the state have American Indian education specialists, such as Nebo and Salt Lake City. But the report card numbers released Wednesday don’t offer a breakdown by school or district to see if those positions make a significant difference in test scores.

Latino students also are falling behind their white peers. For eighth grade math, for instance, the minority population’s average score is 28 points lower. Meanwhile, Latino students make up 17% of Utah’s student body.

Garza believes schools aren’t doing enough to engage parents in their children’s education. And unique issues have come up, too, during President Donald Trump’s tenure, frightening many Latino families from being too vocal or present in their communities.

“There’s still a lot more bridge building that needs to happen,” he added.

Garza also suggests that because the state consistently falls at the bottom of per pupil spending, money that would go toward assisting students of color is either not allocated or insufficient. More funding, he believes, would increase access for Latino students to tutoring and other resources and tests scores would rise as a result.

While both Latino and American Indian students are falling behind, it’s hard to say exactly where other racial and ethnic groups fall. The National Assessment of Education Progress data did not yield consistent test scores for Utah students who are black, Asian or Pacific Islander for math or reading in both fourth and eighth grades.

One bright spot in the report, though, was that Utah’s English language learning learners saw some improvement. Of those students, 38% are now at or above a basic reading level. In 2017, roughly 21% were.

Meanwhile, those who are low-income, categorized in the reports as qualifying for free or reduced school lunch programs, saw dips in scores across the board for both subjects and grade levels.

The largest decline was for eighth grade math, where those students scored an average of 266 in 2019, down from 270 in 2017. That’s 29 points lower than their peers not in those programs.

“We have some work to do there,” Peterson said. “We have a lot of work to do everywhere.”

In Utah, roughly 2,400 students in fourth grade and 2,500 eighth graders took the tests.