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Less than half of Utah students proficient, new tests show
Proficiency tests » Education officials aren’t surprised by scores, cite stricter new standards.
First Published Aug 18 2014 05:28 pm • Last Updated Aug 19 2014 02:45 pm

Preliminary results of Utah’s new school testing system are out — and, to the surprise of no one, they’re not exactly stellar.

The percentage of Utah students who scored proficient or better in science ranged from 37 percent to 45 percent, depending on grade level. In math, anywhere from 29 percent to 47 percent of kids scored proficient. And in language arts, proficiency ranged from 38 percent to 44 percent.

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Proficiency was defined as performing at or above standards for grade level.

Individual school and student results likely will not be available until the end of September or October. Schools will be assigned letter grades based partly on the results.

"When you raise the standards and align your assessments to the standards, proficiency is going to go down and that was our prediction," Judy Park, state associate superintendent, said Monday. "If the proficiency hadn’t of dropped, then I think it would really make this whole idea of more rigorous standards questionable."

District superintendents and other education leaders got a chance Monday to weigh in on the results during a public State Office of Education meeting.

This past school year, Utah students took new state SAGE tests for the first time instead of CRTs. The SAGE tests reflected new Common Core academic standards in math and language arts, which describe the skills students should learn in each grade. Education leaders tout the new standards as more rigorous than Utah’s old ones — part of the reason they expected test results to dive this year.

Proficiency levels were much higher on CRTs last year. In science last year on CRTs, proficiency levels ranged from 58 percent to 76 percent, depending on grade level; in math, from 39 percent to 85 percent; and in language arts, from 77 percent to 90 percent.

The dip, however, doesn’t mean kids aren’t learning as much or as well. Rather, the two tests can’t be compared because they are different types of assessments testing students on different sets of standards. SAGE tests, unlike CRTs, are also computer adaptive, meaning they change in difficulty as student take them, depending on a student’s answers.

"I think this is a much more realistic picture of where we are," said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, assessment and accountability director at the State Office of Education, of this year’s SAGE results.

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Chris Domaleski, a senior associate with the Center for Assessment, which is a technical adviser to the state office, said it’s not unusual for test results to dip with new standards and assessments before rising again the next year. That’s what recently happened, he said, in New York and Kentucky.

"We don’t want to put teachers and students in the crosshairs here," Domaleski said. "This isn’t about performance … This is about truth in advertising. It’s about an honest portrayal of where students are in respect to rigorous standards of achievement."

But Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum and a staunch opponent of SAGE and the Common Core, said Monday she hopes the relatively low scores will "be a wake-up call for a lot of people."

"I would think parents would really be upset with those results," Ruzicka said. "The way the tests were designed is bound to cause a problem for children when they’re testing in a way they’ve never tested before."

Park acknowledged Monday that it will be tough on students, parents and teachers when they get their individual and school results in coming weeks. She said she expects sadness and disappointment from her own grandchildren when they see their scores.

"I think it’s going to be a difficult emotional journey for them to realize that with increased standards, increased rigor, they won’t be scoring as high as they did in the past," Park said.

But she said she hopes the new standards and tests will help better prepare kids for college and careers. In the past, she said, students often scored well on CRTs only to learn they weren’t ready for college once they got there.

"I think we’re on the road to guaranteeing our kids are not going to experience what our kids experienced in the past," Park said.

The superintendents and other education leaders were asked Monday whether they thought the bar should be raised or lowered when it comes to how well students must score on SAGE to be considered proficient.

The preliminary results were based on recommendations from groups of educators and others about where the bar should be set.

The superintendents, however, did not recommend any changes.

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