Utah's new adaptive testing system draws praise, criticism

Published: Sunday, April 20 2014 7:35 p.m. MDT

Christian Johnson raises his hand to say that he's finished taking a practice SAGE test at Polk Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, April 17, 2014. To the left is Taylee Johnston and to the right is Isabella Orozco.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah students are getting their first taste of a new year-end testing system that swaps paper for computer screens and adapts to the skill level of an individual child.

The computer adaptive assessment, commonly known as SAGE, has been championed by educators as a 21st century testing system that provides timely and precise results for use in classroom planning.

But SAGE has been coldly received by parents skeptical of its adaptive format and alignment with the Common Core State Standards, resulting in an uptick in the number of families pulling their children from year-end assessments and giving new life to an old debate about the merits of standardized testing.

In addition to SAGE, most school districts administer tests throughout the year to gauge student progress. These formative assessments have had positive results, lifting the performance of some of Utah's most struggling schools. But to parents weary of high-stakes testing, it can appear like more — and too much — of the same.

"I feel like this testing is really over the top," Heber City parent and activist Christel Swasey said. "It’s just turning children into widgets."

Depending on whom you ask, teaching and testing are either competing priorities or two sides of the same coin. As Utah schools look to prepare students for college, careers and the competition of a global economy, many educators say that testing is time well-spent.

"Kids will not be serviced as well as they could be at a public school if they are not tested," Foxboro Elementary teacher Allison Riddle said. "We’ll do the best that we can, but it’s time wasted if we don’t know where they’re at."

Data-driven learning

Three years ago, Ogden School District claimed six of Utah's 10 lowest-performing schools, including Dee Elementary, which reported the worst proficiency scores in the state.

Administrative shake-ups and a heavy reliance on assessment data have lifted Ogden out of the bottom shelf and Dee Elementary recently exited Priority Status, a U.S. Department of Education label for struggling schools.

"Our students have been progressing because teachers are better able to meet whatever their needs are for having analyzed the data on student performance," Rich Nye, the district's assessment director, said.

The district's embrace of data is apparent upon entering an Ogden school. Graphs tracking everything from test scores to attendance are displayed in hallways, and teachers meet regularly in teams — or professional learning communities — to analyze scores, compare results and formulate strategy.

Nye said students are tested every six to nine weeks, and the results of those assessments are used to diagnose strengths and weaknesses.

"Depending on how our students do on our interim assessments determines what instruction looks like next," Nye said. "We want to make sure that we’re moving our students in the right direction."

In Granite School District, formative assessments are given each quarter and teachers meet weekly in professional learning communities, district spokesman Ben Horsley said.

Data aid teachers during team meetings, he said, equipping them with quantifiable information on both student success and teacher success, which can then be replicated.

"In order to compare results, you have to be working off the same platform," Horsley said. "It’s not to say that the individual assessments teachers created themselves were ineffective, they just didn’t allow the ability to compare data and see how effective instruction really is."

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