by Ronie Lyn, Salt Lake Tribune, September 21, 2003
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Shae Kunz cringes with guilt and frustration every time she
thinks about her 11-year-old son's struggles with literacy and
the misdiagnoses that left him drugged and reading below grade
level while his peers passed him by.
Only after countless experts and tests do Kunz and her son Tommy
Dudley finally understand that it's probably dyslexia that
causes him to stumble on simple words such as "the" and "was"
while he can sail through more complex words like
"refrigerator." But now that he knows what's wrong, he can get
the help he needs to work through it.
He will need it, too, if he is to meet tougher academic
standards demanded by business leaders and mandated this year by
He's not alone. The towhead with spiked hair and an ever-present
sketch pad is one of more than 80,000 Utah children who struggle
to read on grade level. National statistics suggest many have
dyslexia, but thousands more are learning English. Still others
somehow missed fundamental building blocks crucial to
Whatever the reason for falling behind, they and Utah's 400,000
other public school students could soon be held to a
significantly higher bar under a state Board of Education
proposal to shift to a radical new way of educating students.
The $393 million "Performance Plus" plan has two main
* It expands the required core classes students must take.
* It requires students to demonstrate a high level of knowledge
about various subjects before they advance.
"The focus is not so much on what has been taught but what has
been learned," said Kim Burningham, chairman of the state board.
The plan also addresses reforms mandated by No Child Left
Behind, a sweeping federal law that demands greater
accountability of schools and districts.
Over the past several weeks, hundreds of parents have crammed
public hearings to try to make sense of what all this means for
their children: Will students be tested to death? Will they have
to for go electives like music and release time for religious
instruction? Why is it so expensive, and where will the money
come from? Wouldn't smaller class sizes be a more effective
strategy for improving student achievement?
The plan is still being fine-tuned, and its implementation
depends largely on the Legislature's willingness to fund it
during coming legislative sessions.
In the meantime, here are four things every parent needs to know
about the changes potentially coming Utah's way beginning next
fall for the class of 2008 and beyond.
Back to basics: Seventh- and eighth-grade students will have to
earn 12 units of credit, equal to six courses per year,
including pre-algebra, eighth-grade English and eighth-grade
Performance Plus proposes increasing core requirements from 15
units to 18 units for high school students, including three
years of English, two years of math (including geometry or
applied math II), two years of science, 2 1/2 years of social
studies, one year of health, one year of physical fitness, a
semester of education technology, a year of applied technology,
a year-and-a-half of fine arts, a semester of financial literacy
and three more units in an area of focus chosen from those
The proposed requirements raise the hackles of many parents who
worry the additional courses will crowd music, drama and release
time for religious instruction out of students' class schedules.
"There are a lot of parents that are concerned about what this
does to elective options," said Gayleen Gandy, a West Valley
City mother of six. "We're already losing our fine arts programs
at the junior high level because of how strict the money is, and
this just adds to it."
State officials say electives shouldn't be limited because most
school districts' schedules have room for additional courses.
That said, students who are struggling with their classes might
have to use those extra periods for remedial classes, tutoring
or other services designed to help them catch up.
New standards: Here's where the rubber meets the road for
Under Performance Plus, Ds are eliminated, and year-end
standardized tests carry much more weight. The operative term
here is "competency," which means mastering a subject.
The proposal defines student competency in several ways, but the
most commonly used standard probably will be a C or better and a
passing score on the year-end test in a particular course.
Students also will be able to "test out" of a course if they can
show evidence that they have had preparation in the subject. A
student might satisfy a fine arts requirement, for example, by
having taken piano lessons for several years and demonstrating
his or her skill.
While many parents applaud the idea of assuring students know
and understand course material before moving on, some oppose
imposing competency standards on students who are behind and
have not had the benefit of tutoring or other services to help
catch them up.
Additional tools: In addition, Performance Plus also proposes
adding frequent classroom assessments so teachers can take a
pulse on each student's learning throughout the year.
The plan calls for extensive teacher training to help them
analyze results, and, if needed, adjust their instruction to
suit students' needs.
While the proposed assessments and teacher training wouldn't be
sophisticated enough to diagnose dyslexia and other complex
learning disabilities, they could at least alert teachers to a
student who is struggling with specific skills or concepts.
Armed with that information, the teacher could troubleshoot the
reasons behind a student's difficulty and identify ways to help
Performance Plus also calls for tutoring, before- and
after-school programs or other services to help students catch
up as soon as they begin to fall behind. Summer school and other
remedial help also would be offered.
Many educators understand and appreciate the value of the
assessments, training and tutoring services but say class-size
reduction also would be effective.
"If we were to reduce class size, teachers would have more time
to visit with individual students, and you would see a great
difference in achievement," said Parley Jacobs, principal at
Granger High School in West Valley City, where it's not uncommon
to have 35 or more students in core classes.
The costs: Officials at the state Office of Education project
the new testing system will cost $95 million. They say it could
cost another $190 million to provide the services to help
low-performing students reach the higher standards, plus $75
million to train teachers on the ins and outs of
All told, state school officials estimate it will cost $393
million -- $203 million in new funding and $190 million in
existing education funds -- to implement changes called for in
the new state and federal laws driving Performance Plus.
Lawmakers say they will first have to study the validity of the
state office's cost projections and proposed services before
considering measures to provide new funding. Among the possible
measures are shifting money from other state budgets to public
education and raising taxes.
Some lawmakers say school leaders will have to reprioritize
their existing budgets to meet the new standards. School leaders
balk, saying they already are stretching their money as far as
it will go.
In the end: No one wants to meet the higher standards more than
Tommy. He spends extra hours during and after school to learn
the skills that will help him read at grade level -- and read
the standardized tests that will determine in part whether he
has achieved competency.
He spends many more hours completing homework and assignments
other kids take half as much time to finish.
He just wants the chance to show what he can do. His math and
analytical skills surpass those of students much older than him,
and his goal as a newly elected member of his school's student
council is to raise awareness about dyslexia and other learning
disabilities, especially when the proposed stakes are so high.
"I think there are a lot of kids who don't know they're
dyslexic," he said. "I want the school system to help kids like
Glossary of terms
Senate Bill 154: A sweeping 2003 state law that requires Utah to
shift to a system of public education that emphasizes core
subjects and in which students advance only when they can
demonstrate their knowledge of a particular subject.
Performance Plus: The state Board of Education's proposal for
meeting the demands of SB154.
Core subjects -- Performance Plus requires more emphasis on
English, math, science, social studies, health and fitness,
education technology, applied technology, fine arts and
Competency-based education: A central part of Performance Plus,
students advance only as they are able to master subjects, not,
as currently, by spending a semester in a classroom and earning
a D or better.
Competency: Gov. Mike Leavitt and business leaders define
competency as students' ability to demonstrate what they know
and can do. Performance Plus defines competency in four
different ways for middle and high school students: 1) earning a
C or better and passing the associated year-end standardized
test in a given class; 2) earning an A and taking the associated
year-end standardized test in a given class; 3) proving mastery
of course material and scoring at the top level on the year-end
standardized test; and 4) for classes in which year-end
standardized tests have not been developed, earning a C or
better in the class or meeting standards yet to be developed by
the state board.
Exit competencies: Complex skills all students demonstrate as a
condition of high school graduation.
Diagnostic assessments: Classroom snapshots of students'
understanding of skills and concepts being taught. Mandated by
SB154, these assessments -- which could include online tests,
journal entries or two-minute quizzes -- are quick and pointed
to give teachers and parents immediate feedback on students'
Intervention: Tutoring, before- and after-school instruction and
other services during the school year for students in danger of
falling behind, as identified through diagnostic assessments.
These services are meant to keep children on track and prevent
them from needing remediation in the future.
Remediation: Tutoring, summer school and other services for
students who did not achieve grade-level competency during the
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