Fewer students across Utah met grade-level standards, according to the latest round of SAGE scores — the first dip in results since the state proficiency test’s inception four years ago. Also, more students opted-out of taking the test.

The Utah State Board of Education released scores for the computer-based test for the 2016-2017 school year Monday. The results showed proficiency rates fell for every grade level in nearly every tested subject, which includes language arts, math and science.

Language arts proficiency rates went from 44.1 percent in 2016 to 43.6 percent last school year; math rates declined from 46.5 percent to 45.7 percent; and science rates dropped from 48.7 percent to 47.5 percent.

Despite the decrease between 2016 and 2017, overall scores remained higher than in 2014.

“We will be looking deeper into the numbers to understand reasons behind the slight decline,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said Monday in a statement. “One year of decrease does not annul three years of growth, particularly when we also have 2017 data from ACT that shows an increase in Utah high school student scores.”

The Utah Board of Education has posted the 2016-2017 SAGE scores online, in a database searchable by statewide results or by individual district, school and grade level.

School administrators have discretion on when they release individual student scores to parents.

The latest SAGE scores declined for most student groups, with few exceptions. Numbers improved, state officials said, in all subjects for students with limited-English proficiency and those with disabilities. Language arts scores rose among students who are Hispanic, and language and math scores both went up for students who identify as having multiple races.

Proficiency scores ranged widely from district to district. Breaking with the state’s overall trend, Canyons School District saw its numbers rise from last year across grade-levels and subjects.

The share of Canyons students proficient at grade-level in math rose from 52.0 percent last year to 53.1 for the 2016-2017 school year, while science proficiency scores went from  55.4 to 55.6 percent. Hal Sanderson, the district’s research and assessment director, credited those improvements to professional development initiatives and team-building programs.   

Granite School District’s overall proficiency rates fell last school year, hovering at or slightly below around a third of its students performing at grade-level for language arts, math and science.  But for some schools, that districtwide trends masked gains year to year.  West Lake Jr. High School in West Valley City, for example, saw gains in both language arts and science, with those number rising from 15.8 to 19.7 percent and 16.7 to 22.2 percent, respectively.

West Lake principal Tyler Howe said the school’s emphasis on personal achievement and accountability, combined with consistent evaluation of student skills in core subjects, had helped move the needle in the right direction.

Salt Lake City School District scores rates dropped in almost every test subject, with language arts proficiency falling from 41.1 to 40.6 percent and science, from 39.9 to 38.7 percent, while math proficiency rose from 42.9 to 43.5 percent. 

The numbers also reveal large gaps between demographic groups. Slightly more than half of Asian and Caucasian students statewide, for example, were found to be proficient at grade level in math, compared to just above 15 percent of students with disabilities and those with limited English-speaking skills.

Similarly, nearly 54.5 percent of Caucasian students were proficient in science, scores showed, versus 10.5 percent of students with limited English skills.

Year-to-year comparisons are made problematic by a substantial increase in the number of students opting out of SAGE testing, as allowed by Utah law.  More than 69,500 students opted out of the latest round of testing — nearly 6 percent of all tests and more than three times the 22,077 students opting out  in 2014.

About five percent of students in Utah’s public school districts opted out of last year’s testing, according to state data, compared to 13 percent of charter school students. Both opt-out rates rose year over year.

Board of Education spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler said that students opting out of last year’s test were concentrated at higher grade levels. And that uptick was anticipated, she said, after the board’s 2016 decision to let districts decide whether to offer SAGE to 11th graders, who also take the college-aptitude gauging ACT. 

But state school board member Brittney Cummins said it would be misleading to attribute score declines in proficiency solely on the opt-out rate.

“It’s disheartening to see a decline,” said Cummins. “We plan to look closely at the data and find opportunities at the state level where we can promote proficiency for all students.”

The state’s contract with the company that created SAGE, Washington, D.C.-based research firm American Institutes for Research,  expires at the end of this school year. The Board of Education is in the final stages of a request for proposal for a new contract, Wheeler said, and it expects to award the bid in the coming weeks.

The new contract would cover SAGE testing for grades 3 through 8, Wheeler said, but the test won’t change format.

A state Board of Education subcommittee recently halted plans to replace next year’s SAGE testing for 9th and 10th graders with ACT-preparation tests, after board staff warned that adopting pre-ACT tests would conflict with state accountability programs for schools as well as procurement laws that require a competitive bid process.

The subcommittee voted instead to continue SAGE testing for Utah’s freshmen and sophomores while the state finds a new testing provider for 2019 and beyond. That vote still must be approved by the full Board of Education.