Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren

The Utah State Office of Education released the assessment results last month of Utah schools’ proficiency in math, science and English; Grand County High School received a grim ‘F.’

The state office of education predicted that most Utah schools’ test scores would drop as a result of a new testing format created to measure more challenging standards set by the state two years ago. Test scores typically improve in the years thereafter, according to the state education office.

The state education board required all Utah students, from third grade onward, to take new, standardized Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) tests in the spring of 2014.

Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren said his school’s failing grade was not typical of past assessments. Helen M. Knight Elementary School fared better on the state’s assessment of student proficiency, with a ‘C’ grade; and Grand County Middle School scored the highest in the district, with a ‘B’ grade.

While Hren said he is not “happy” with his school’s ‘F’ grade, and makes no excuses, he provided some insights as to what may have contributed to the school’s low scores and what he plans to do to improve students’ proficiency in the core subjects.

The testing format changed significantly, was much more rigorous and required essay writing for the first time in many years, he said.

“Overall, after a few years, it will probably be a better test to determine student growth,” Hren said.

To better prepare students for the new standardized testing format, they will be given more writing assignments, plus math applications will be added to career and technical education classes, Hren said.

“It’s not just a response to the (state’s) grade,” he said. ”We’re a self-evaluator – we’re reviewing what we need to do with students to help them academically.”

Additionally, Hren is looking at changing next year’s schedule so that students will take math and science each trimester, to provide for continuous instruction throughout the school year.

While dedicating more time to math, science and English, students will still be able to take the same number of non-core classes such as woodshop and applied consumer science, due to plans for a slightly longer school day, Hren said.

“We will increase the overall hours of instruction by 40 additional hours,” he said. “We’ll increase the (school) day by 15 minutes.”

Hren said he suspects attitudes toward the test itself played a role in the poor assessment scores. After reviewing records, he found a “glaring disparity” between recent and past test scores of students who typically perform well, he said.

Grand County High School had already started taking the assessment tests last year while the state was vacillating on how it planned to use the data, Hren said. He speculated that some students, and possibly some teachers, did not take the tests seriously as a result of the rhetoric surrounding the testing issue.

Hren said he plans to talk to students individually to learn what happened during this year’s test-taking. He said he hopes students will understand that however one feels philosophically about standardized testing, results are a reflection on the school.

Kirk Farnsworth, assessment development coordinator for the state office of education, is one of the test builders who – along with teachers from across Utah – helped write the questions. He said they subsequently went through what he described as a thorough review process to ensure accuracy and fairness to students across the state.

“As soon as the state adopts standards, we design an assessment to measure (achievement of) those standards,” Farnsworth said.

The proposed assessment questions themselves are tested, by placing them out in the “field” in front of students. The questions are embedded in exams across the state – although they do not count toward a grade in those cases.

“There’s quite a bit of review before a test question is used,” operationally on a standardized test, Farnsworth said.

“The questions were complex – especially math,” Grand County Middle School principal Melinda Snow said. “I’m proud of the students’ problem-solving skills. Many questions did not align with our core.”

Snow said she is pleased with her students and staff for their hard work, despite limited resources.

Helen M. Knight Elementary principal Taryn Kay called the letter grade given to schools a “political measure” that is not particularly helpful for teachers or staff who are trying to improve student learning.

As opposed to focusing on a grade given to an entire organization, “We’re focusing on individual students – their results; where the gaps are in our instruction,” Kay said. That said, “We’re not happy with a ‘C’ – we’re going to do better. We want excellence.”

For the past two years, Utah has assigned grades to schools based on a bell curve, as opposed to the traditional percentage scoring method.

“The State Office of Education and the state legislature decide where to draw the line,” Kay said.

“It’s alarming to me,” Hren said, “because it’s going to be a moving target,” which means if all schools improve equally the individual grades remain the same.

The assessment tests are adaptive. In other words, if a student answers the first three or four questions correctly, the questions progressively become more difficult.

“So (students) all take a different test, which makes it difficult instructionally,” Kay said.

The SAGE assessment 2013-2014 test scores for the district’s schools reported lower proficiency rates in language arts, mathematics and science, compared to overall state results.

The report showed a state average of 41.7 percent proficiency rate in language arts, compared to the local district’s average of 32.5 percent. Utah averaged 38.8 proficiency in mathematics compared to Grand’s 26.6 percent; for science, Utah’s proficiency rate was 43.7 percent, whereas the Grand district scored 36.6 percent.

Farnsworth contends that the test is fair to all demographics. However, Kay mentioned a recent Salt Lake Tribune article that reported high SAGE assessment results line up neatly with affluence.

“We all know that the biggest determinant to student success is coming from a home rich in vocabulary, and the opportunities afforded,” Kay said.

“We have 52 percent poverty in our schools – that’s not a statewide problem,” Snow said.

The majority of the state’s schools are located along the Wasatch Front, where they benefit more from private property taxes. According to Snow, Moab schools receive less property tax money because the town is surrounded by national parks. Plus, in the city, there’s more industry and corporate funding of area public schools, Snow said.

Administrators cite possible causes and propose ideas for improvement