1 of 2
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Students take a practice SAGE test at Polk Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, April 17, 2014.
I think we need to put it all on hold. I think we need to get back to what tests are used for, which is to inform instruction, not to grade a teacher and certainly not to grade a school. —Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association

SALT LAKE CITY — Students this month began taking Utah's year-end assessment known as SAGE. It's only the second time the test has been administered, but lawmakers are already considering reasons to eliminate the test that cost tens of millions of dollars to develop.

The discussion was sparked largely in angst against federal entanglement with Utah's education system and in doubt of the overall effectiveness of annual student assessments.

SAGE, or student assessment of growth and excellence, is a computer-adaptive exam administered once a year to students in grades 3 through 12. The test grades students on math, English language arts, writing and science.

The exam is aligned with the Common Core Standards, which raised the bar for student performance in Utah. As a result, fewer than half of students in the state cleared the new standard of proficiency in last year's assessment.

But high standards and poor student performance aren't the reasons for doing away with SAGE, according to Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who heads the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

"There will be legislation this year to create a task force to look at doing away with the SAGE test entirely," Stephenson said. "I think we need to be looking at the whole issue of whether we should have end-of-level tests or whether (to have) more authentic assessments to validate mastery throughout the year as it occurs."

Because many schools lack needed technology infrastructure to administer the computer-adaptive assessment at the end of the school year, some students must begin taking the test with several months of instruction still ahead.

And because SAGE doesn't affect an individual student's ability to advance in school, honest effort is sometimes lacking, bringing into question the assessment's accuracy, according to Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper.

"So many of the kids don't like it, don't understand it, they're not engaged, so they check out early," Christensen said. "They don't approach it the same way they do with their own individual testing that affects their GPA (or) their individualized learning. … I'm concerned that there's a lot of inherent contradictions that we would be perpetuating and endorsing."

As part of Utah's waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, the state is required to administer an end-of-level student exam. A recent report by the Utah Attorney General's Office said Utah's adoption of the Common Core Standards did not cede control of the state's educational system to the federal government, but many continue to cite SAGE and the core standards as examples of federal overreach.

"I think the federal government is trying to do good where they have no business doing anything, constitutionally," Stephenson told KSL Newsradio on Friday.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, said one year isn't enough time to fully evaluate the test's effectiveness.

"I know that no testing system is perfect, but I have had positive feedback about the SAGE test," Iwamoto said. "It's helped students in my district greatly. We are setting it up to fail. We haven't given it a chance."

'Educational malpractice'

Last year, the Utah State Board of Education approved funding allocations from a license agreement that allows several states to use test items from Utah's SAGE assessment. The agreement will bring almost $10 million in revenue to the state, with more than half of the money going toward creating new test questions. The rest will go toward teacher development.

The allocation for creating new test items was approved by the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday, but some lawmakers see the move as a misuse of the test.

"I just don't really understand the wisdom of creating a money-generating windmill," said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. "I don't know why the state government has decided to get involved in the business of developing and selling test questions. It seems counterintuitive."

Some lawmakers say the money should instead be put entirely toward professional development for educators.

"I don't support high-stakes testing. To that end, I can't support additional development of assessment questions for that test," said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden. "Continuing to develop a test that we … will ultimately do away with seems like our revenue could be better spent toward our educating and developing our existing educators."

Education leaders, however, say that if the state develops a sufficiently large bank of test questions, teachers, parents and students could have open access to the test items because there would be so many that it wouldn't affect student performance.

While the year-end assessment stems from a federal mandate, state law designates SAGE as the basis for school and teacher evaluations, such as the controversial school grading system or the PACE Report Card.

Because SAGE is administered only once a year, educators say it's an unfair way to assess the effectiveness teachers have in classrooms throughout the year.

"Standardized tests have absolutely been misused, and that's what we're seeing in Utah schools. It's very much an educational malpractice in my mind," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association. "I think we need to put it all on hold. I think we need to get back to what tests are used for, which is to inform instruction, not to grade a teacher and certainly not to grade a school."

Judy Park, associate superintendent of public instruction, said that because year-end student assessments are established in state statute, it's well within the ability of state lawmakers to change the system. Whether that will happen during the current legislative session remains to be seen.

"Our assessment systems have always been in compliance with state law," Park said. "It's state law that has driven the assessment systems that we have. It's very defined in state law, and so if legislators are now unhappy with former legislation and they want to change that legislation, certainly that's within their purview to do."

Parental rights

Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that allows parents to opt their children out of statewide assessments. The bill also requires that teachers and schools be held harmless for their students who choose to opt out of SAGE.

But in the wake of the new law, some school districts are requiring parents to meet face-to-face with district leaders and sign waivers "to try to convince them that they're making a mistake," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, who sponsored the legislation.

In addition, Osmond said, some schools offer "rewards and recognitions" to students who do complete SAGE that aren't given to those who don't. And even though teachers are protected under the statute, they still express fear that they'll be penalized in the evaluation process because they have students who aren't participating in the test.

"It's just a cluster," Osmond told members of the State School Board on Thursday.

Osmond said he's working on legislation this year to clarify state law and to address those challenges, but he noted the difficulty of doing so without making the Legislature a "super school board" and impacting the authority of local school districts.

Dixie Allen, a member of the State School Board, noted that when students opt out of SAGE, teachers have less data they can use to improve their instruction in key subjects.

"The bottom line is those assessments were never meant to grade schools or teachers. They're supposed to help grade students so we know where they belong and where we can help them. It's a really good test," Allen said. "Opting them out really tells the teacher, 'We don't know for sure where your kid is at.'"

Osmond said some parents have expressed support for year-end assessments developed individually by local education agencies. Several charter schools agree with the idea, but funding remains a critical barrier to developing such an assessment on a local basis, he said.

"That's the challenge," Osmond said. "Do we reinforce local control and let them assess and validate, or do we (administer a test) we know is consistent from district to district?"

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen