"Basically I had zero to two kids in each grade level in each test who got a passing score," Utah International Charter School Principal Angela Rowland said. "It's hard to see your school's test scores at the bottom."
The SAGE (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) test, taken by students for the first time last spring, uses a computerized format that adapts in difficulty to individual test-takers and frequently asks students to reason through questions without providing multiple-choice answers. It is aligned with the state's new math and English standards, which are designed to measure college and career readiness.
Educators say the test creates a higher level of expectation. One state official compared the test to placing hurdles in the pathway of a runner.
Rowland said SAGE is a better test than Utah's previous year-end assessment, the Criterion-Referenced Test. But she said SAGE is difficult for students who are not native English speakers or recent immigrants to the United States, which describes most of the student body at Utah International in South Salt Lake.
"The SAGE test is not designed for English learners," she said. "It's designed for kids who were born and raised here."
She said one question asked students to read contrasting articles about the management of bison and write an argumentative essay. The students would have done better if they knew what bison were, Rowland said, but she was not permitted to explain the word to them.
"I'm sure [SAGE designers] worked hard to get cultural bias out, but you just can't get it out," she said. "You just can't."
Charter schools receive public funds, but are overseen by a governing board rather than elected school board members. Charters also are allowed to deviate from conventional school curriculum, for example, teaching from the Founding Fathers' writings or based on the Socratic method. Charter school advocates argue that the independent schools are able to foster innovation and respond to the needs of underserved students by maintaining autonomy.
Despite that innovation, Monday's test results show many charter school students' mastery of core subjects was similar to that of their peers at traditional public schools.
Students at Timpanogos Academy charter school in Lindon tested at proficiency rates of 35.8 percent in English, 53.1 percent in math and 32.2 percent in science, on average. At Rocky Mountain Elementary four blocks away, 51.3 percent of students scored proficiently on English, with 46.4 percent proficient in math and 43.4 percent proficient in science.
In Draper, Summit Academy charter school students earned proficiency rates of 58.6 percent in English, 58.9 percent in math and 53.3 percent in science compared to rates of 62.4 percent, 58.9 percent and 53.6 percent, respectively, at Draper Elementary about a mile away.
Several charter schools posted much higher scores.
More than three-fourths, 79.9 percent, of students at Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science (NUAMES) in Layton tested proficient in science — the highest single subject score among the state's charter schools.
At the same time, several charter schools posted single-digit proficiency rates in at least one subject, including the Utah International Charter School, Rose Park's Pacific Heritage Academy and the Utah Career Path High School in Kaysville. Even more posted proficiency rates in the teens.