Utah’s Common Core-Based Tests Signal Drops in Proficiency

Utah’s new school testing system‘s results have been released, and they are nothing to brag about.

In science, the percentage of students who scored at the proficient level or better ranged from 37-45%, depending on grade level.  Between 29-47% of students placed at the proficient level in math.  In language arts, the students at the proficient level ranged from 38-44%.

The definition of proficiency for the schools is performing at or above grade level standards.  Lisa Schencker of The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that letter grades for schools will be available at the end of September or October and will be based on these 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 [sic] dropped, then I think it would really make this whole idea of more rigorous standards questionable.”

The change was from Criterion-Referenced Tests (CRTs) to Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) tests.  The SAGE tests were based on the new Common Core academic standards in math and language arts, which are aligned to the skills students should learn at each grade level.  Utah education leaders were not surprised by this, since the new standards, they said, are more rigorous than the old Utah standards.

Last year, results on the CRTs showed proficiency in science ranged from 58- 76%; in math. 39-85%; and in language arts 77-90%.  This does not mean, say officials, that students are not doing as well as they were last year.  It simply means that the two tests are different in terms of assessment types and standards testing.  SAGE tests are also computer adaptive, meaning that as a student takes the test, the questions change in difficulty depending on the 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.

A group of educators met this week at the Utah State Office of Education to review data and to recommend proficiency benchmarks for the new computer adaptive testing system, according to Benjamin Wood writing for the Desert News.

Some parents were opposed to the test based on its computer adaptive format and because it aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  There will likely be some parents, in spite of the educators’ admonition that proficiency levels would drop, and that the decline would be a sign that the reforms were working, who will be troubled.

Few parents with normally high-scoring children will want to see results from the test that say their children are being labeled underperforming.  In fact, say educators, this test will allow teachers and parents to get a complete picture of a student’s ability to succeed at the college or university level.

“I think in the past we sort of were looking through some rose-colored glasses around CRT proficiencies and thinking our kids were better prepared than (they) actually were,” said Jo Ellen Shaeffer, Utah’s director of assessment and accountability. “I think this is a much more realistic picture of where students are.”

Prior to the testing meeting, there had been a meeting of the Utah State School Board to decide whether to re-apply for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver.  The board decided to do so, but the decision made many dissenters of the federally-mandated Common Core frustrated.

Samantha Sadlier of The Spectrum says the waiver fom the No Child Left Behind Act allows states to act outside the strict boundaries that require all schools to be 100% proficient.  Dave L. Thomas, state board member, made the motion to reapply.

“We were already doing everything that would qualify us for the waiver,” he said. “Not because the federal government made us do it. We were already doing it … moving in that direction with our standards — adopted standards we thought were college and career ready. We were already looking at doing teacher evaluations and performance pay.”

According to ESEA standards, said Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson, in 2013, only two of the schools in his district would have passed.

In 2014, he thinks none of his schools would have passed.  Because ESEA has other requirements, like the fact that 20% of Title I school funding must be used to go toward transportation for students who want to attend the nearest passing school and 10% of Title I budget must be used for professional development, Utah would have had to pay approximately $26.5 million to cover these costs.