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SALT LAKE CITY — School leaders are diving into this year's SAGE results after having their first look at scores from the year-end assessment over the weekend.
Overall improvement in proficiency rates from 2014 was something they expected to see, but some of the numbers are showing surprisingly rapid trends of improvement happening consistently across the state.
Math, the subject students previously struggled with the most, had a proficiency rate 5.4 percentage points above that of last year, more than any other subject. Those gains were even more pronounced for high schoolers, who produced a statewide average proficiency rate more than 17 percentage points higher in secondary math III.
It's a staggering climb to make in one year, but education leaders say that shouldn't diminish people's confidence in SAGE as a valid assessment of students' yearly progress toward college and career readiness.
"We did expect to see scores improve the second year," said David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education. "We will be taking a very close look at it, especially in high school … making sure that we're getting accurate data, because that's really the basis of our accountability system. We want to make sure that people have confidence in that."
Crandall said it's still too early to draw definitive conclusions from this year's data. Some teachers, though, have seen differences in their classrooms between this year and last that they say contributed to the improved performance.
The Jordan School District saw the largest gains in math of any district on the Wasatch Front, with an overall increase of 7.2 percentage points. Within the district, several high schools made double-digit jumps in proficiency, including Bingham High School, where proficiency rates in secondary math II and III improved by almost 26 percentage points.
It's no small feat for Noelani Ioane, who has been teaching math at Bingham for about 10 years. She said the transition from separate algebra, geometry and calculus courses to an integrated math curriculum has been a tough one for students and teachers.
"I felt like there were a lot of gaps in what those kids coming into secondary math had been taught," Ioane said. "On top of that, you had teachers who hadn't had sufficient time to prepare for teaching a new core, and it just kind of was a mess. I think it's taken us a little while to get our feet underneath us and teach things correctly and help those kids who had some gaps. We're doing a better job now."
This year's group of high school juniors who took the secondary math III portion of SAGE are the first group to make it all the way through Utah's new middle and high school integrated math curriculum, from sixth to 11th grade.
Now several years into the program, Ioane said teachers are finding ways to collaborate across grades and campuses, and better align their teaching with Utah's academic standards. Students have also had time to find their place in the curriculum and get used to the higher expectations.
"There's always a resistance to change, even if it's good change. Just talk to anybody who's tried to go on a diet," she said. "There's always an adjustment period, and I think we're starting to see the results of not only our math department doing a good job, but the teachers at our feeder middle schools doing an excellent job. It's all starting to trickle up with what we're doing."
Ioane said the district has also devoted resources in the past year to helping students prepare for the computer-adaptive assessment. Teachers used questions from the formative version of SAGE to administer practice tests for students.
This was especially helpful in the math section of the test, Ioane said, because it includes operations that are more complex than other subjects. For example, knowing how to use the SAGE graphing calculator or how to put an exponent in an answer add layers of complexity beyond simply answering a multiple-choice question or typing normal text.
And with a year of SAGE testing under their belts, Ioane said her students were more confident this year in taking the exam.
"It's not a completely foreign, scary thing anymore," she said. "The fact that they took it the year before and they didn't die, they survived, helped them as well."
Students at Bingham weren't the only ones who saw significant gains in arithmetic. Each school district on the Wasatch Front saw an increase in proficiency of at least 4.5 percentage points.
Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers said the "shock" from transitioning from the CRT, Utah's former year-end assessment, to SAGE is largely over now that educators have two years of SAGE data to compare. He said Utah's growth in the new assessment speaks to improvements in teaching and learning, but it doesn't call into question the assessment's validity.
There's always a resistance to change, even if it's good change. Just talk to anybody who's tried to go on a diet. There's always an adjustment period, and I think we're starting to see the results of not only our math department doing a good job, but the teachers at our feeder middle schools doing an excellent job. It's all starting to trickle up with what we're doing.
"Could some of the gains be a little artificial based on changes to the test? No, they shouldn't," Withers said. "But there should be some fine tuning in terms of questions that actually measure learning versus measuring something different. SAGE should become more stable over time, and the healthiest growth is small bits and pieces moving in a positive direction over time."
Crandall said a task force of members of the State School Board will begin examining the data when they are finalized, looking for anomalies and possible explanations for why the numbers are the way they are.
As SAGE is administered in future years, telling trends of student performance will become more apparent, Crandall said.
"Last year, we obviously said it was a baseline, and it was. This year, we have a new baseline as the first year that we've actually tried to use the assessment to directly measure growth in student achievement," he said. "The longer we offer the assessment, the more informative the data will become."