Deseret News
FILE: Almost two-thirds of teachers say they believe Utah's annual test for students, known as SAGE, has not helped improve results in their schools, according to a new survey. But not all those teachers are taking full advantage of data from the test.

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost two-thirds of teachers say they believe Utah's annual test for students, known as SAGE, has not helped improve results in their schools, according to a Utah State Office of Education survey.

But not all those teachers are taking full advantage of the data offered by SAGE. Teachers who use SAGE results to identify student learning gaps and implement evidence-based instruction are significantly more likely to believe that the test is helping their school improve, the report states.

State education leaders say the recent teacher feedback shows a "critical need" for more resources to help educators understand what SAGE means for students and their instruction.

"What we're finding in the survey is teachers would like to learn from those who have found success using the data to inform their instruction, meeting students' needs," said Rich Nye, associate superintendent of data, assessment and accountability at the state education office. "It was less about the assessment and more about how to use the assessment results."

The survey gathered responses from more than 4,400 teachers across the state last month, and the results come just weeks before schools begin to administer SAGE for a third year. Members of the State Board of Education were scheduled to discuss the survey in their monthly meeting Friday.

SAGE measures proficiency rates in English language arts, math and science for students in third through 11th grades. It was adopted to replace the CRT, Utah's previous standardized assessment, and is aligned with a higher standard of student proficiency.

Last year's SAGE results showed 44.1 percent of Utah students proficient in language arts, 44.6 percent proficient in math, and 46.8 percent proficient in science. Each subject saw gains from the previous year.

But concerns with SAGE persist among teachers. Mohsen Ghaffari, a fifth-grade teacher at North Star Elementary School in Salt Lake City, said a summative test is necessary to gauge student growth. But he believes the attitudes of his students toward SAGE, among other issues, can negatively impact the data.

"I support SAGE in a way that we have to have a test at the end of the year for everyone to take," Ghaffari said. "Do I think it's as effective as it can be? I have my doubts."

Survey results

Roughly 78 percent of teachers in the survey said they believe SAGE is aligned with the Utah Core Standards, and 72 percent agreed that it embodies high expectations for students.

But more than half of educators said students are tested above their abilities, and only 42 percent agreed that SAGE has a positive effect on student learning, according to the report.

Education leaders say the results could illustrate a number of common perceptions and needs. Among them, SAGE sets expectations that are too high, teachers aren't using SAGE results to inform instruction, and they need more training to teach higher skills required by Utah's current academic standards.

"We can dump as much data on folks as possible," said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, assessment director at the state education office. "But then understanding what to do, where to go from there and how to implement strategies that are actually going to improve student achievement and comprehension of our Core standards is really the critical piece.

"That's really where we need to shore up what we're doing."

When asked about ways to improve the assessment, providing opportunities to learn from teachers with high academic growth topped the list, with support from 62 percent of respondents. Fifty-one percent of teachers asked for more training on how to use SAGE results, and 44 percent wanted help in interpreting the results.

Among the lowest on the priority list were improvements to SAGE administration software and reporting tools.

When asked what is most important to them about SAGE, 88 percent of teachers said they value results that are immediately available. Seventy percent of teachers consider the test's online administration and reporting system as important, and 60 percent favor the test's adaptive format.

Efficient administration and alignment with the Utah Core Standards were lower than most other priorities, according to the report.

Education leaders were disappointed by the fact that almost 37 percent of teachers said they didn't use SAGE data from the previous year to assess the needs of their incoming students.

"That's just shocking to me. It's really a lost opportunity," Shaeffer said. "That was really dismaying because we as a state have worked so hard to procure systems that have immediate results."

However, of the two-thirds of teachers that did consider test scores from the previous year, 78 percent agreed that student scores are one valid measure of teacher effectiveness, and 84 percent believed it was an accurate measure of what their students learned. That was a "bright side," Shaeffer said.

Nye said the report also informs a discussion historically driven by anecdotal concerns that teachers spend too much time preparing their students for SAGE. Some 58 percent of teachers said their level of preparation was too little or just right, and 43 percent said they spent too much time, in some degree, on preparation.

"In some ways, the survey supports some of those concerns," Nye said. "In other ways, it adds additional information to make better decisions in how we move forward in the future of SAGE."

Because the survey focused exclusively on SAGE, Nye said future surveys will explore how other assessments are used and administered in schools.

Ongoing adjustments

Adding to the discussion on the how SAGE should look going forward, state lawmakers this year again deliberated over perceived problems and benefits of the state's standardized testing system.

The Legislature passed two bills that change the way the test is used. One removes the ability for schools to use SAGE in teacher evaluations. The other allows high schools the option of not administering the exam to juniors, who already take the ACT statewide.

Both bills came in light of concerns from teachers who say some students aren't inclined to give the exam their honest participation since it doesn't impact their academic standing. Lawmakers considered another bill that would allow teachers to base part of a student's grade on SAGE, but the bill failed.

Teachers are also faced with influences outside the classroom and their control that impact testing outcomes, such as student truancy, poverty and language barriers. It raises the incentive for teaching to the test rather than basing instruction on academic standards, Ghaffari said.

"I think, personally, we are under so much pressure to bring test scores up. We focus on questions on SAGE rather than the Core," said Ghaffari, Utah's 2015 teacher of the year. "It would help if meetings were focused on effective teaching of the Core rather than a single test."

Despite the problems, Ghaffari said, test results "shouldn't be thrown in the garbage." More important than the data itself, he said, is what teachers decide to do with it in improving outcomes for their students.

"It opens up a very narrow window into my students' brains and their knowledge," Ghaffari said. "But I hope that people don't rely on it wholeheartedly."

Utah has gained recognition from other states about the rigor of its exam and academic standards. The state has been recognized as one of a select few "truth tellers" by Achieve, a national education reform organization, because SAGE results closely resemble those of NAEP, a national proficiency measure.

State education officials see it as at least partial confirmation that SAGE is a step in the right direction for students.

As students and teachers continue to become accustomed to SAGE and the Utah Core Standards, education leaders are confident the test's reliability and student proficiency will improve. And collecting data through teacher feedback facilitates that process, according to Nye.

"We want to collect more substantive data from teachers to be able to better inform the conversation before we make decisions," he said. "We feel like we have a really good product in SAGE. Every assessment needs to be polished over time."

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