Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE — John Hancock Charter School students Isaac Hard and Samuel Siebert work on an assignment at the school in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, May 4, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of students in Utah are still performing below what's considered proficient, despite posting modest gains in their SAGE scores, according to new test results released Monday by the Utah State Board of Education.

This is the third year of data for SAGE, Utah's computer-based standardized testing system, which has faced controversy since its introduction in 2014.

Rich Nye, deputy superintendent of student achievement at the Utah State Board of Education, acknowledged that education leaders have work to do but said the board is "grateful for the gains.”

"Even though we're looking at 2 percent gains, we're talking several thousands of students more proficient this year than they were last year," Nye said.

Compared with last year, math proficiency levels climbed from 44.6 percent to 46.5 percent, and science proficiency levels rose from 46.8 percent to 48.7 percent. Language arts scores remained flat.

Although the scores did not jump as much as last year, students of all races and ethnicities showed slight improvement in most subjects. Economically disadvantaged students showed modest improvement in all three.

Charter schools also made slightly greater overall gains in math and science proficiency than district schools, although they scored lower overall.

Still, problems continue to plague SAGE. Among them: An increasing number of parents are opting out of the test and a perceived lack of effort from students. State law prohibits the test from being factored into a student's grade.

In May, the Utah State Board of Education voted to look at discontinuing SAGE for high schools, contingent upon the state Legislature.

That's created anxiety for many school administrators, particularly those involved in testing, said Rob Averett, Granite School District student assessment director.

Granite School District ranked below average compared with other school districts this year and last. Averett said that’s because standardized tests don’t always take the diversity of the student body into account. With the highest concentration of refugees in the state, Granite often takes in kids with limited English and years of interrupted schooling.

Instead, Averett said the district places a greater emphasis on assessments that measure individual growth in the classroom rather than "major disruptive tests” like SAGE.

“We value it, but it's not the only measure," he said. "But it is the high-stakes measure."

That's because SAGE scores form the basis of school accountability measures in the state. Schools that end up in the bottom 3 percent are required to undergo turnaround programs.

In the Duchesne County School District, curriculum and assessment director Jason Young said he hopes SAGE sticks around. His district posted some of the largest gains in the state this year.

"They are rigorous, but doable. They're aligned," Young said of the standards. "Our teachers are able to collaborate better than we've ever been able to do before."

Now that SAGE is in its third year, teachers have had enough time to align their curriculum with the standards, he said. Also, by picking a core group of standards to emphasize, teachers have been able to narrow their focus, Young said.

SAGE "got off to a rocky start with a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication, and that's been hard to regain," he said.

"How do we handle the uncertainty?" Young asked. "We're just going to go about our business. We're just going to teach our students the best they can and help them be successful in life. And if the rug gets pulled out from under us, we'll just have to start over.”

Nye acknowledged that SAGE's future is in question, although he said schools are proceeding with testing for the 2016-17 academic year.

In the future, "if it's not SAGE, but it's something by another name, we have confidence that hopefully what's decided upon will still be in the best interest of the students," Nye said.

The State School Board is also undertaking a statistical analysis that will show whether the scores are still representative of the overall student body for accountability purposes because so many students have opted out, he said.

That, combined with the soon-to-be released growth scores and other indicators like the ACT, will give a more comprehensive picture of how schools — and the SAGE test itself — is performing, Nye said.

"Today, we're just looking at one piece of a much larger puzzle," he said. "But it is a piece that needs to be understood."

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

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