Goodbye, SAGE. Utah Board of Education picks new vendor for statewide testing

Questar Assessment Inc. will provide Utah public schools with a computer-adaptive test for students in grades three through eight, beginning next school year.

Utah is cutting ties with Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research (AIR), the testing vendor that developed the SAGE exam taken by public school students each year.

The Utah Board of Education announced Friday that it will enter into a five-year, $30 million contract with Questar Assessment Inc., headquartered in Minnesota, to develop a new computer-adaptive test for Utah students in grades three through eight.

Utah retains ownership of the SAGE bank of test questions, which will be used along with new content in an as-yet-unnamed Questar Assessment test, expected to launch during the 2018-2019 school year.

“As a selection committee, we vetted the companies through a fair and unbiased process,” Utah Board of Education vice chairwoman Terryl Warner said in a statement. “Much thought and discussion went into this decision, and I believe this is in the best interests of both students and taxpayers in Utah.”

Questar Assessment was one of four companies that bid for the state contract, according to the school board. Its program will include English and math tests for grades three through eight, a science test in grades four through eight, and a writing test for grades five and eight.

A separate bidding process is underway for a new test for Utah’s high school-age students. School board members have previously signaled their intent to adopt a suite of pre-ACT tests known as ACT Aspire, but backed away from that decision amid concerns about Utah’s procurement code, which requires the board to conduct a competitive selection process for private-service agreements.

Warner was the sole member of the state school board to participate on the selection committee. Her board colleague, second vice chairwoman Alisa Ellis, said she learned of Questar Assessment’s selection through the public announcement.

Ellis said the decision to retain the SAGE question bank for use in future tests was made before she joined the school board. She said she is concerned about recycling SAGE items, based on the experience of friends who served on a review panel when that test was developed.

“They saw a lot of subjective questions that were not strictly measuring academic knowledge,” Ellis said. “I would first and foremost advocate for the creation of new questions.”

By retaining the SAGE questions, Utah saves some of the cost of developing a new test bank, according to Rich Nye, superintendent of Ogden City School District and a former associate state superintendent. Utah’s question bank is also leased to other states, generating revenue that traditionally has been used for the development of new testing items.

“Item development, whether it‘s under AIR or anyone, is really the greatest cost,” Nye said. “The benefit of the items being ours is there’s less item development, hence less cost.”

Annual testing is required by federal law in grades three through eight and at least once in high school, but Utah law requires testing in all grade levels to generate data for several state-based accountability programs, such as assigning performance grades to schools and directing private consultants to help struggling campuses.

The SAGE test has failed to gain traction in Utah since it was launched in 2013, with high numbers of parents opting their children out of participating, undermining the accuracy of Utah’s accountability ratings. By law, schools are prohibited from rewarding students for completing a year-end test, and scores cannot be factored into a student’s semester grades.

Nye described the SAGE test as the best assessment the state has ever had. His district, Ogden, saw an opt-out rate of 2.5 percent last year, compared to the 5.9 percent of students statewide who declined to participate in testing.

“It really does provide a robust metric for us to gauge student performance, the success of our system and areas that we need to make improvements with instruction,” he said.

Warner said she liked that Questar Assessment is a smaller company, as well as its overall pitch to the selection committee. The state board has been increasingly vocal in its frustrations with AIR, including discussions on whether the testing company had complied with its state contract.

“I really liked what they had to offer,” Warner said of Questar Assessment. “It felt like they would be able to be more open in working when there are issues that arise.”

Warner hopes a new system would slow or reverse the rise in parents opting their children out of testing. She said she had heard from constituents that SAGE questions didn’t correspond with the information taught in their children’s classes.

“I‘m hoping that it will be better-aligned,” Warner said. “If it is, then perhaps we won’t have the complaints that we’ve had in the past.”