SALT LAKE CITY — While most students in Utah are still performing below what's now considered proficient, newly released SAGE results are giving education leaders reason to smile.
This year, 44.1 percent of students were considered proficient in English language arts, compared to 42.2 percent last year. Math scores saw the largest gains with 44.6 percent proficient, up from 39.2 percent last year. And 46.8 percent of students in Utah scored proficiently in science, compared to 44.2 percent last year, according to data released Monday by the Utah State Office of Education.
This is the second year of data for SAGE, formally known as the Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence, which tests students in English, math, science and writing. The test is administered annually to students in grades three through 11 using computer-adaptive technology, which adjusts to each student's skill level.
Education leaders say the test offers a once-a-year snapshot of a student's progress, but with overall improvement in each of the three subject areas, they hope it's indicative of an upward trend in students' academic progress. And Utah's growth, they said, is thanks to educators teaching to a higher standard and students getting familiar with more rigorous content.
"We're really pleased by the results," said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, director of assessment and accountability at the Utah State Office of Education. "Last year was our baseline year, we had great growth this year and we hope for great growth again next year. We're not going to be happy until all kids are proficient. That's our goal."
All subject areas in all ages saw improvement at the state level, but the largest gains happened in Utah's high schools. About 47 percent of 10th-graders, for example, scored proficiently in English, up from 41 percent last year. Chemistry students are now at 51 percent proficient, compared to 45 percent in 2014.
With a proficiency rate of 48 percent, secondary math III improved by roughly 18 percentage points from last year's rate of 30 percent, the largest increase for any subject or any grade level. Shaeffer said more students were enrolled in secondary math III with this year's test, and more high schoolers have now gone through all sections of Utah's integrated math program.
"Because of the integrated way that math is now being taught, kids are much more familiar with the core (standards)," Shaeffer said. "I think that that's probably some of what you're seeing."
At the state level, math produced the largest gains for students, and it had the largest increase in the number of students tested. This year, an additional 15,108 students were tested in the math section, producing a score 5 percentage points higher than last year.
It's a trend that lies at odds with other large-scale assessments, such as the ACT, which typically see a drop in scores with significant increases in participation.
For the past three years, the Utah Legislature has provided funding to administer the ACT college placement test to all high school juniors. Last week, ACT scores for the class of 2015 were released, showing an increase in participation in Utah by 15,000 students since 2011, and a drop in performance by 1.6 points in that time.
"We didn't see that for SAGE," Shaeffer said, making this year's scores "even more impressive."
The Cache County School District maintained its spot from last year as the top performing district on the test, with 56.7 percent of its students performing proficiently in English, 63.1 percent proficient in math and 62.2 percent proficient in science.
The San Juan County School District also kept its statewide rank as the lowest-performing district on SAGE, with 23.1 percent proficient in English, 26.8 percent in math and 29.4 percent in science.
Out of 95 charter schools with available data, Utah County Academy of Science scored the highest among its fellow charters, with 76.2 percent proficient in English, 78.4 percent in math and 91.4 percent in science. Esperanza School in West Valley City was the lowest among those, with 10.4 percent proficient in English, 9.3 percent in math and 10.7 percent in science.
Eleven school districts saw lower proficiency scores from last year in some subjects.
SAGE is based on the Utah Core Academic Standards, which were adopted by the Utah State School Board in 2010 and implemented over the following years to raise expectations in student performance.
Leaders at the Jordan School District, which made some of the largest gains of any district in the Wasatch Front, said much of the improvement is thanks to teachers and students having another year to grow accustomed to the standards and the test format.
"I think that we have seen a significant effort from our teachers to implement the Utah state core standards, and the whole effort has been to implement strategies that will (lead to) a deeper understanding of the principles by our students," said district spokesman Steven Dunham. "Our teachers have really done a phenomenal job with this."
Wendy Harmon, a math consultant for the district, said teachers also got professional development to help them prepare their students for the test, which requires them to answer questions in more interactive ways, not just multiple choice. Teachers used formative assessments to give students "practice tests" before taking the summative SAGE exam, she said.
Harmon said the data from this year's SAGE exam will contribute to other data points teachers use to gauge their students' needs.
"SAGE is just one of the many data points we look out for our students. We're constantly assessing students formally and informally to figure out which students need enrichment, acceleration or intervention," Harmon said. "SAGE is just a part of that."
State education leaders are also analyzing the data to formulate accountability reports, which disaggregate SAGE data to identify trends across various demographic groups. This year's federal accountability report, known as SFAR, the governor's PACE report card and school grades are scheduled to be released Sept. 15.
Early this year, several lawmakers pushed to eliminate SAGE, citing technical problems, federal entanglement and the length of the test as contributing factors to an "onerous" burden for students and teachers. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, among others, eventually requested that the State School Board suspend the test, but the board declined.
Education leaders agree that some elements of the test have proven difficult to implement, and students are having to get used to the test's computer-adaptive format. But SAGE and the Utah Core standards provide a more rigorous way to drive improvement and accurately measure progress, according to Shaeffer.
"We're hoping that it's giving us better information about what kids really know how to do," she said. "I think as we set the bar higher and we have this more rigorous test, teachers and students are striving to meet that. They're rising to the challenge, and I think that's excellent."