Helen M. Knight Elementary Principal Taryn Kay, left, honored September Student of the Month Willow Nichols, right, as Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison looked on. Kay told the Grand County Board of Education last week that local students demonstrated significant growth and achievement during the 2015-2016 school year. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

With students settled in for the new school year, the Grand County School District is looking forward to another year of performance progress – as assessed by local administrators and professionals working directly with the students.

Following the Utah State Board of Education’s release of statewide school grades, the Grand County Board of Education and school administrators met on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to discuss the state evaluation, as well as internal measures of success.

The tone of the meeting was positive and confident, as Grand County School District Superintendent Dr. Scott Crane congratulated the administrators for the improvement that each school demonstrated, both internally, and through state testing.

“We’re making good progress,” Crane told the Moab Sun News. “Even the (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence test) scores, when you look at them, show growth. I think we’re working hard, and we’re working together, and if we continue on this path, we’re going to keep seeing even greater progress.”

Despite the news that the grading scale for last year’s state-mandated SAGE testing downgraded school grades statewide, internal performance measures in each school demonstrate that students and faculty are achieving their goals, Crane said.

He said he does not subscribe to the idea that an the end-of-year standardized test provides the only meaningful information that educators need to set performance goals and monitor student achievement.

“Testing was never meant to give an all-inclusive grade to the school,” Crane said. “The purpose is to find out what students understand and know. If you understand what they know, you can determine what they need to learn. That’s the purpose of testing, and that’s what I want to emphasize. Our tests are going to inform instruction, so that our teachers can address the students’ needs directly.”

Helen M. Knight Elementary Principal Taryn Kay presented the board with a breakdown of SAGE scores per school during the meeting, and explained their significance given the testing and scoring methodology.

Scored both on proficiency and growth in language arts, math and science, HMK and Grand County Middle School received scores of 316 and 372 out of 600, respectively. This amounted to a three-point improvement for HMK, and a six-point improvement for GCMS – gains which are not to be taken for granted, she said.

“It’s difficult to get percentage gains,” Kay said. “Six percent growth is a tremendous difference.”

Grand County High School improved from 437 to 444 out of 900 points, as measured by growth, proficiency and college and career readiness, maintaining a “C” grade.

Schoolwide performance gains are difficult to achieve under any circumstance, Kay said. But those gains are especially difficult, she said, given that in its third year, SAGE testing is still undergoing major changes and remains a moving target for students and faculty.

This year, for example, the elementary test included a writing component for the first time. On top of the testing methodology, which presents students with progressively more difficult questions as they demonstrate aptitude, inconsistency can cause students significant stress, Kay said.

After spending the school year working as a collaborative team on strategizing and emphasizing the importance of SAGE testing to their students, teachers at GCMS were thrilled to see their score increase, GCMS Principal Melinda Snow told the board. Their score increase was reflected in a “B” letter grade even under the new grading system.

“We can all now breathe a sigh of relief about the grade and be proud of our work together,” Snow said, adding that in the end, the students should feel the most proud for stepping up to the high standards of learning that the district sets.

Early in his tenure as superintendent, Crane implemented a districtwide achievement mission billed “Climbing to New Heights” to provide an achievable vision of progress for faculty and students.

“When people think of testing, they think of kids filling in a bubble page or sitting at a computer,” Crane said. “Testing can be a verbal discussion, where the teacher elicits and receives responses from students, and can determine intuitively who understands and who doesn’t. It can be a quiz, it can be a paper. It pulls us away from multiple-choice testing and puts us in a creative format where teachers can evaluate students based on their ability and creativity as a professional.”

“Climbing to New Heights” is structured around four key elements of success, which include simplifying curriculum and targets, consistently teaching the curriculum, quality instruction, and celebrating student academic successes as the victories they are.

Key to the strategy is utilizing “Professional Learning Communities,” groups of teachers from each grade level who meet to evaluate performance data and make decisions based on that information.

A technology grant the district received this year will help the district secure software, making data analysis even easier, he said. The software will enable teachers to see achievement trends, right down to individual students who are struggling with specific concepts in math, for example.

At GCHS, individual teachers assess student achievement by specifying learning goals and administering pre- and post-tests. At the department level, faculty teaching English and math at GCHS and GCMS are collaborating as Professional Learning Communities to develop end-of-year assessments that determine readiness for the following year’s curriculum for each level of advancement from 7th to 12th grade, GCHS Vice Principal Cari Caylor said.

“We’ve been working on (Climbing to New Heights) for four years and we continue to work on it,” Crane said. “It’s not something that happens overnight, or that is even quantifiable to a certain extent, because we’re talking about cooperation and collaboration among a group of individual professionals.”

Faculty and students at HMK celebrated their 3 percent score increase on the SAGE tests, irrespective of their letter grade of “C,” he said.

According to internal testing for reading, 91 percent of HMK students made at least one year’s progress in one year’s time, Kay said. They’ve achieved language arts and reading goals on an individual-student basis through their literacy program, which groups students of all grade levels according to skill and ability in focused small groups.

Such programs exemplify the district’s intent to provide simple, consistent activities that lead to meaningful student achievement, Crane said.

“And we’re going to celebrate that,” he added. “They did a wonderful job last year. We don’t want to depend on external measures to determine what we think of ourselves and our self-esteem. We want our kids to progress one year per grade, so that next year they’re ready to tackle the next curriculum.”

District says standardized tests alone are not enough to measure success