Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Carson Olsen Elise takes a practice SAGE test at Polk Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, April 17, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of educators and administrators met Monday at the Utah State Office of Education to review preliminary data and recommend proficiency benchmarks for the state's new computer adaptive testing system.

The SAGE test, administered for the first time this spring, was coldly received by some parents who refused to let their children participate out of concern for its adaptive format and, more notably, for its alignment with the Common Core State Standards.

With the first scores from the test expected in late September, state education officials are bracing for a public backlash due to an all but certain drop in the number of students testing at grade level.

Educators say that decline in performance will be evidence that the state's reforms are working, since students are now being evaluated against a higher standard.

But there is also worry that the message may not reach Utah parents who are surprised when their traditionally high-scoring children are suddenly labeled as underperforming.

"When you raise the standards and you align your assessment to the standards, proficiency is going to go down," Associate State Superintendent Judy Park said. "If the proficiency hadn’t have dropped, then I think we would really make this whole idea of more rigorous standards questionable."

SAGE is designed to align with the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted by Utah in 2010 and outline the minimum skills in mathematics and English that students are expected to master each year as they prepare for employment or higher education beyond high school.

The test replaces the criterion referenced testing system used until last year, which educators say painted an incomplete portrait of a student's ability to succeed at the college or university level.

"I think in the past we sort of were looking through some rose-colored glasses around CRT proficiencies and thinking our kids were better prepared than (they) actually were," said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, Utah's director of assessment and accountability. "I think this is a much more realistic picture of where students are."

Park said she anticipates the release of SAGE scores will be an emotional time, with many students and families feeling sad and disappointed when they see their scores.

But she said she also remembers when her children, who had high test scores and A's on their report cards, struggled to keep up with college-level coursework.

"It was such a shock to them, and they were not prepared," Park said.

Last week, a group of more than 200 educators from across the state reviewed Utah's core standards and test questions to make recommendations on what scores translate to student proficiency.

Test scores will be divided into four levels — highly proficient, proficient, approaching proficiency and below proficient — and setting the cutoff for each level determines whether student performance is exaggerated, understated or appropriately reflects the progress of Utah's children.

"Lots of people are going to have lots of reactions to this," Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers said. "The people that need to have the most thoughtful reactions are the classroom teachers with good data in their hands."

Based on preliminary data, the educators' recommendations would yield results showing between 29 percent and 47 percent of Utah students testing proficient in mathematics, depending on their grade level.

For English language arts, the scores range from 38 percent proficient in 11th grade to 44 percent proficient in third grade. Science scores range from 37 percent proficient in high school biology to 45 percent proficient in chemistry as well as sixth- and eighth-grade science.

Chris Domaleski, a senior associate with the Center for Assessment, presented the data to educators Monday and described the process of setting proficiency standards as "truth in advertising" as a lower threshold would yield more favorable results but would produce a false sense of student achievement.

Domaleski reiterated that a decline in proficiency is to be expected when new standards are implemented, but that it reflects an increase in rigor rather than a decline in educator effectiveness.

"We don’t want to put teachers and students in the crosshairs. This isn’t about performance," he said. "It’s an honest portrayal of where students are in relation to rigorous standards."

The final determination on proficiency standards is expected to be made by the State School Board during its September meeting.

Shaeffer said scores will not immediately be released after the board's action, as the data from more than 1.5 million tests administered last spring will then be validated and reviewed for final publication.

"This is a huge, major undertaking," she said. "It’s going to take some time to make sure everything is accurate."

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