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Debate over SAGE testing continues in Utah Legislature

FILE: Students take a practice SAGE test at Polk Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, April 17, 2014.
FILE: Students take a practice SAGE test at Polk Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, April 17, 2014.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — SAGE this year is once again the subject of scrutiny, debate and tweaking in the Utah Legislature.

The year-end exam, which was established by the Utah Legislature and developed by state education leaders, raised the proficiency standard for students in grades three through 11. Most schools will begin administering SAGE at the end of March.

But legislators continue to grapple with concerns over student effort on SAGE, whether annual test scores should be used in teacher evaluations, and even whether to do away with the exam altogether.

It's a debate that won't be totally resolved this year.

"Whether you like SAGE testing or whether you don't, this is a Utah test that in my opinion has a lot of possibility," Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said last week. "I think that we need to continue to work on it and refine it."

Lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would give school districts and charter schools the option of not administering the test to 11th-graders.

Cottonwood Heights Democrat Rep. Marie Poulson, who is sponsoring HB200, said high school juniors would continue taking the ACT, a college preparation exam administered statewide.

While some schools may choose to continue administering SAGE to 11th-graders, the change could impact some students entering their junior year of high school this fall.

The proposal comes in light of federal policy changes under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires that an end-of-level assessment be administered only once in high school grades.

"In this one area, it allows us some flexibility. It's drawn back on some of these requirements," Poulson said of the law that replaced No Child Left Behind. "I think it's a good opportunity for us to take advantage of this."

HB200, which passed the House last week in a 70-2 vote, now awaits approval on the Senate floor.

Poulson, a former teacher, also noted the difficulty in motivating older students to do well on the exam when it doesn't impact their grades or their ability to graduate. But educators say student participation is a concern for students of all ages.

Michelle Jones is a junior high school math teacher in the Granite School District. She said SAGE provides an "amazing data point" by showing student performance and growth in each academic standard, allowing her to adjust her instruction as necessary.

Jones said her students, however, aren't always on board with giving a full effort since it doesn't affect their grade for the class. Furthermore, 3 percent of families statewide opted their children out of taking the SAGE test.

"In school, your grade is kind of like your paycheck. It's how I tell my students what's important," Jones said. "If it's not something they have to stress out about, they've got other things to worry about, so they're not going to put as much time and energy as they maybe could have. So it really invalidates a lot of the data that I could glean from this really important test.

"My school's graded on it. I'm graded on it. It just seems logical that I should be able to also use that grade," she said.

One lawmaker is trying to allow such an approach in the classroom. HB164 in its current form would allow schools to use SAGE as a partial component of a student's academic grade. Originally, the bill would have allowed schools to use SAGE in determining a student's advancement to the next grade or graduation, but that provision was later removed.

The bill failed to pass the House Education Committee earlier this month, but the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, presented a substitute bill last week that would eliminate SAGE from Utah's education system.

"The SAGE test just needs to go," Powell said, citing complaints from constituents in person and via social media.

It's the second year of the test's three-year life that lawmakers have considered its termination.

Since current federal law requires states to administer end-of-level assessments, it's unclear how Powell's proposal would work, though some legislators said they support it. But the bill was held in committee to give lawmakers more time to consider the implications of Powell's proposal.

"I recognize that there's feelings about SAGE testing. After all, we've had 3 percent of the state that's opted out," said Last, chairman of the House Education Committee. "But I think to make a decision right now to do away with SAGE testing is insane."

"We'll have this discussion for another year," Powell said.

Lawmakers are considering another proposal to address the dilemma of student effort on SAGE, as well as a growing portion of parents opting their children out of the test. Last year, district schools had an opt-out rate of 2.46 percent, and charter schools had an exclusion rate of nearly 10 percent.

Teachers also worry that truancy and other attendance problems further impact class-level scores, and it makes for an unfair metric for teacher evaluations when SAGE is included, according to North Star Elementary School teacher Mohsen Ghaffari.

"I feel like I'm not in control of the situation, yet I'm accountable for the situation," said Ghaffari, who was Utah's teacher of the year in 2015. "It really is not indicative of whether we are good teachers or not."

Most schools, however, saw growth in their SAGE scores last year. Statewide, 44.1 percent of students scored proficiently on English language arts, 44.6 percent were proficient in math and 46.8 percent were proficient in science. Each subject and grade level saw improvement.

HB201, sponsored by Poulson, would prohibit schools from using SAGE in evaluating teachers. She said the change would not only create a more reasonable evaluation system but also entice more teachers to stay in the profession.

"This is just one of many steps to change the situation as far as retaining and attracting teachers to a classroom where they feel like they're going to be treated fairly and equitably," Poulson said.

HB201 still awaits approval on the House floor before going to the Senate.


Twitter: MorganEJacobsen