SALT LAKE CITY — Changes to the student assessment of growth and excellence are on the horizon as state lawmakers and education leaders have begun formal discussions of how Utah's student testing and school accountability systems can be improved.
The test, known as SAGE, is currently used to test students in third through 11th grades on English, science and math. Revisions to Utah's accountability programs, including school grades, could also be made to conform to new testing systems.
State leaders hope the alternatives that emerge will improve student participation, reduce time spent testing and resolve much of the public debate that surrounds student assessment and accountability in Utah.
"As we continue to refine our process, (we need to) make sure that we are continuing to actually build on that process in productive ways that support what we want, and that is student learning and achievement," Ogden Republican Ann Millner, Senate chairwoman of the Education Interim Committee, said Tuesday during a joint meeting with lawmakers and the Utah State Board of Education.
Some proposals have already entered the discussion.
Education leaders for more than a year have been considering the implications of removing SAGE from high schools. Since the test has no bearing on student grades, educators fear that some students aren't inclined to do their best when they take SAGE. Those concerns are most acute for high school students, who also have the highest rates of being opted out of the test by their parents, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
The State School Board voted last month in favor of doing away with SAGE in high school following a request from Gov. Gary Herbert that the test's mandatory status be removed for secondary schools. But since SAGE is a state-mandated test, the proposal still requires legislative action.
The ACT, a college preparation exam already administered to high school juniors statewide, would be a possible alternative measurement, according to State School Board Chairman David Crandall.
"We see in high school less incentive, maybe no incentive or motivation, to take (SAGE) tests because they're not meaningful," Crandall said. "There's built-in incentives to do well on the ACT because it matters for college admissions, it matters for scholarships."
Lawmakers are considering a host of other changes in light of other concerns, including that students spend too much time testing and that parents aren't sure whether the test leads to better outcomes for their children.
One answer to that would be to use SAGE more frequently in a formative setting, where teachers administer smaller versions of the test throughout the year to constantly measure student achievement.
"I'm wondering if we can move to some sort of system where we don't test every child every year," said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights. "I would like to see us move more to formative assessments so we can use the test to benefit kids, rather than just collect information on measuring schools."
But some educators say SAGE has helped schools make strides in using data to drive classroom instruction and teach to a higher standard beyond the previous test.
SAGE has also become more useful as teachers continue teaching to the Utah Core standards and as students become accustomed to computer-adaptive testing, according to Sherri Heiter, assessment director for the Weber School District.
"That's one of the things with SAGE — it's much better than it was," Heiter said. "In my 29 years in this profession, it's the best we've ever seen."
Utah's testing system has earned praise from other states, including Florida, Arizona and Tennessee, which have used items from the SAGE question bank in their own state testing systems. Licensing agreements with other states has earned Utah about $10 million, funding that is used to develop more test questions and help schools interpret testing data.
Some educators are also asking lawmakers to consolidate accountability systems, including school grades and the PACE report card — two reports that provide different information on schools but are both based on SAGE data. Critics of the school grading system say it sends too simplistic a message to families by labeling schools with A, B, C, D or F grades.
"We're not shy of accountability, and we don't mind saying, 'Here's where we rock and here's where we don't,'" said Logan Toone, director of assessment for the Davis School District. "Whether we like it or not, we need it, we use it. But it needs to be detailed. It needs to be specific to good measures that really represent what we care about in our schools and what we expect our schools to be accomplishing."
Lawmakers are also beginning to grapple with a growing teacher shortage, which some educators say is partially driven by education policies such as SAGE that add to teacher workloads.
A survey conducted in 31 school districts last year by the Utah School Boards Association found that 48 percent of those districts reported starting the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom. Ninety percent reported that the pool of qualified applicants has been shrinking.
That's coupled with other data, which show that about half of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. The number of college students graduating in education programs is also declining. Meanwhile, Utah's student population continues to grow by more than 10,000 students each year.
"We've not been experiencing teacher shortages in the same way that we're experiencing them today," Millner said.
Policymakers are looking into teacher pay, morale, perceptions of the profession and other issues as possible contributing factors to the shortage of educators. But they hope to gather more data and evidence over the summer on how the problem can be addressed.
"We have touched the tip of a very vital, large iceberg," said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. "This is symptomatic."