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."
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."
Granite recently fired a teacher who refused to participate in formative testing. Horsley said the teacher had a history of insubordination, but her dismissal nonetheless drew the ire of parents opposed to standardized testing.
One of those parents was Swasey, who wrote on an anti-Common Core blog urging parents to send letters to district officials calling for the teacher's reinstatement.
Swasey, a former educator who opted her daughter out of SAGE, said there are differences of opinion on the effectiveness of testing data.
When asked about schools that have seen success with data tracking, she said there may be positive "side effects" from testing, but they come at the expense of personal relationships between parent, child and teacher.
"Some people feel that data is a wonderful thing," she said. "I personally feel that the human touch and being close and loving and intimately involved with the day-to-day struggles of the child to read and write and do math, that’s how I, as a teacher, have always worked."
But Riddle, who was named Teacher of the Year in October, said she appreciates feedback from testing, whether it's the in-class quizzes she designs for her class, district formative tests or year-end assessments.
"My teaching improves when I have data from the tests and I can differentiate in class depending on what (the students') needs are," Riddle said.
Teaching vs. testing
Parents and teachers often caution against teaching to the test, or prioritizing high scores on math and English assessments to the detriment of well-rounded learning.
Nye said those concerns were heightened by No Child Left Behind, which required schools to meet ever-increasing Adequate Yearly Progress thresholds or face funding cuts.
Assessments, Nye said, were the "tail wagging the educational dog."
No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land, but the Obama administration has awarded states waivers from the progress requirements in exchange for adopting high-quality standards defining the minimum skills a student is expected to master each year.
Most states, including Utah, chose to implement a combination of locally developed standards and the national Common Core, created collaboratively by state leaders.
Meanwhile, advancements in testing technology cut down on the waiting period for test results, providing educators with timely information they can use in classroom planning.
"It’s taking a turn to where we’re actually able to use (testing) in a positive way to determine how we’re providing services to our students," Nye said.
Whitne Strain, of Bountiful, opted her son out of SAGE testing. She said she questions the morality of assessments and worries that data generated by SAGE will one day be used inappropriately.
She said she felt more comfortable with SAGE's paper-and-pencil predecessor, which gave an identical test to each student. Technology, she said, could lead to teachers who are better at achieving high scores than educated students.
"I’m concerned that we’ll lose the most creative teachers and that we’ll tend to get the people that are willing to just take a lesson that somebody else has written and dispense it," Strain said. "Those are some of those non-tangibles that are hard to quantify, and only time will tell if those are going to be an issue or not."
Swasey said effective teachers do not need test results to know the progress of their classroom. She said expensive testing technology offers little value at the local level and draws resources away from class-size reduction efforts and teacher pay.
"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.
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