PCSD eliminates SAGE testing for older students
August 16, 2016
Some Park City students will have one fewer standardized test to grapple with come the end of the school year.
The Park City Board of Education recently voted to eliminate the annual Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence — commonly referred to as SAGE — testing for students in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. The reason was simple: A 2014 Utah law gave parents the ability to opt their students out of any state-administered test, and too many in Park City were doing so.
Superintendent Ember Conley said nearly 50 percent of ninth- through 11th-graders at Treasure Mountain Junior High School and Park City High School chose not to take the SAGE tests this spring.
SAGE testing has been controversial for a number of reasons since it became the state's primary way of assessing students in 2014. But its biggest impact in Park City is its role in the grades the Utah State Board of Education doles out to schools each year. Conley said the high opt-out rate could drastically lower the marks PCHS and TMJH earn when those grades are released this fall.
With that in mind, the district is making a push to educate parents about what to expect before the grades become public, Conley said.
"(The opt-outs) totally invalidate the scores, as far as (our district performance)," she said. "When they do comparative analysis at the state level, district to district, it makes it to where our scores aren't comparable. … For instance, I really do anticipate the high school going from an 'A' to either a 'C' or 'D' based on the scores."
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Rich Nye, an associate superintendent at the State Board of Education, said he understood why the district chose to eliminate the testing for older students. However, he also said SAGE is important because it holds schools responsible for student performance.
The state, he said, must find a way to reconcile parental rights with the state's mandate to assess students.
"I understand the impetus (for the PCSD), but it does carry consequences for state accountability," he said.
The SAGE tests are also administered each spring to students in fourth through eighth grades. The district has not seen comparable numbers of opt outs so far among those students. However, that could change quickly. Conley anticipates that more parents will elect to not have their younger students take the tests, as well, in the coming years.
If that happens, the district would have no recourse. While the Park City school board had the authority to eliminate the testing for older students — the Utah State Board of Education has also voted recently to end SAGE testing for high school students if legislators provide funding to do so — state law currently requires schools to administer SAGE to third- through eighth-graders regardless of how many students opt out.
That could eventually drag down the state grades of Ecker Hill Middle School and the district's four elementary schools also, Conley said. However, lower grades would not put the district at risk of repercussions from the state. The grades — which have been controversial — are primarily used to provide a simple way for parents and community members to evaluate school performance.
"The worst case scenario that is possibly going to happen is people who are looking to live in Park City will get on the state website and see, 'Oh my gosh, your schools have dropped from an 'A' to a 'D.' What's happened to the school system? Is it really as good?'" she said.
There is one other worry, however: If opt-out rates rise in the elementary schools and at Ecker Hill, it could cause the district to become noncompliant with federal guidelines that require districts to administer state standardized tests to students in grades three through eight.
"We're not able to fulfill that because our students are opting out," Conley said. "That's unique in Utah because of the parental rights (law) that was put in. So it truly is a catch-22."
The concern stems from the fact two Park City schools, McPolin Elementary School and Parley's Park Elementary School, receive federal financial aid because of their classifications as Title I schools with significant low-income populations.
However, Conley has been assured that no federal funding will be withheld.
"I've been in contact with the state as far as seeing what are, for lack of a better word, the punishments that would happen to Park City," she said. "They've said (there wouldn't be any) because we can't control it."
Beyond the threat of causing school grades to plummet and failing to meet the federal guidelines, Conley said SAGE's high opt-out rate — and the decision to nix the tests for the upper grades — is little reason for concern. While many schools throughout the state rely on SAGE results for benchmarking, district leaders in Park City instead use another set of tests called Galileo.
One benefit of Galileo compared to SAGE is the time element. SAGE tests take several hours to complete, while Galileo exams, on the other hand, can be completed in about 45 minutes. For students, parents and teachers who in recent years have become increasingly concerned about the amount of standardized testing at the end of the school year, the elimination of SAGE will likely be a welcome sight.
Additionally, the Galileo tests are better aligned to the district's curriculum than SAGE, while still evaluating whether students are meeting state standards. And because Galileo isn't a state test, parents can't opt out, meaning the results paint a much more full picture of the district's overall growth.
"To be really honest, we don't use SAGE like we use Galileo," Conley said. "We don't use SAGE as much just because it's a one-time, one-shot test, which is summative at the end of the year."'
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