Utah's new adaptive testing system draws praise, criticism

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

"The teacher knows how their students are doing, and they’re not reliant upon these types of tests," Swasey said. "It doesn’t really benefit the teacher or the student or the parent, in my opinion."

Associate State Superintendent Judy Park agreed that teachers have a sense of how their students are performing. But she said testing identifies the specific concepts students struggled with and equips educators with a tool to tailor instruction.

"That’s the real tragedy," Park said. "For those students who have been opted out, the teacher doesn’t have that information, the student doesn’t have the information, the parent doesn’t have that information."

She said the angst over testing is due to a false notion that sees instruction and assessment as two separate things. In reality, she said, each complements the other.

"Good instruction has to include good assessment," Park said. "They’re one and the same. It’s all part of that package of providing quality education."

Riddle described the SAGE materials as "brilliant" and said she's been impressed with the information the test generates.

"If I had a student who opted out of testing and came to my classroom next year, wow, I won’t know where they are and I’m going to be guessing and time is lost," Riddle said. "It’s a huge disadvantage for the teacher but more for the student, and I would hope parents would appreciate that."

Making the change

The transition to a new assessment has generated concerns that too much classroom time is being spent on math and English SAGE preparation, forcing educators to trim other subjects.

Riddle said SAGE is significantly different from its predecessor and, by next year, teachers and students will be familiar with the computerized format.

"It’s just new technology," Riddle said. "But, in the end, the testing goes faster because it’s more efficient."

She said in the past, results from the year-end tests wouldn't arrive until after classes had resumed in the fall. SAGE, she said, minimizes student error and provides almost immediate results that can be used to plan the next year's schedule.

"Change is hard," Riddle said. "People get nervous with change and I can see why they get nervous, but this kind of change is good. We’re doing it for a great reason, and that is so we can speed up our instruction, deepen the instruction that we’re doing in the classroom and meet the needs of individual kids."

But Swasey said SAGE is another step toward treating students like human capital to be inventoried and processed.

"The way that I see it, or any reasonable person would see it, (students) turn in so many assignments and so many quizzes and so many things throughout the year, you do not need a government-created or government-mandated high-stakes test to know how a child is doing in a class," she said.

Swasey likened standardized testing to a cartoon familiar to testing opponents that depicts a line of animals — a monkey, an elephant, a goldfish in a bowl, etc. — that are told they must perform the same task of climbing a tree.

But Horsley prefers a different metaphor. He said education is like building a house, and you wouldn't wait until construction is finished to check the work.

"The same rules apply to quality instruction," he said. "You assess along the way to ensure that students are learning what they need to build the blocks toward additional learning."

State education officials are already bracing for a potential uproar when the test scores are made public. New York and Kentucky saw a drop in test scores after their first year of Core-aligned testing, and students in Utah are similarly expected to see lower numbers of grade-level proficiency during the first year of SAGE.

Proponents say that points to success of the Common Core, rather than failure. If schools are being charged with meeting a higher standard of rigor, the argument goes, then the initial transition years will see more students falling short.

"I’m just going to be begging and pleading with anyone that will listen to me to help me make sure the public is well-informed with accurate information about what these scores mean," Park said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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