At Salt Lake City's Utah International Charter School, just 3.8 percent of students scored proficiently in English and fewer than 2 percent scored proficiently in math and science.
"Basically I had zero to two kids in each grade level in each test who got a passing score," Utah International Charter School Principal Angela Rowland said. "It's hard to see your school's test scores at the bottom."
The SAGE (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) test, taken by students for the first time last spring, uses a computerized format that adapts in difficulty to individual test-takers and frequently asks students to reason through questions without providing multiple-choice answers. It is aligned with the state's new math and English standards, which are designed to measure college and career readiness.
Educators say the test creates a higher level of expectation. One state official compared the test to placing hurdles in the pathway of a runner.
Rowland said SAGE is a better test than Utah's previous year-end assessment, the Criterion-Referenced Test. But she said SAGE is difficult for students who are not native English speakers or recent immigrants to the United States, which describes most of the student body at Utah International in South Salt Lake.
"The SAGE test is not designed for English learners," she said. "It's designed for kids who were born and raised here."
She said one question asked students to read contrasting articles about the management of bison and write an argumentative essay. The students would have done better if they knew what bison were, Rowland said, but she was not permitted to explain the word to them.
"I'm sure [SAGE designers] worked hard to get cultural bias out, but you just can't get it out," she said. "You just can't."
Charter schools receive public funds, but are overseen by a governing board rather than elected school board members. Charters also are allowed to deviate from conventional school curriculum, for example, teaching from the Founding Fathers' writings or based on the Socratic method. Charter school advocates argue that the independent schools are able to foster innovation and respond to the needs of underserved students by maintaining autonomy.
Despite that innovation, Monday's test results show many charter school students' mastery of core subjects was similar to that of their peers at traditional public schools.
Students at Timpanogos Academy charter school in Lindon tested at proficiency rates of 35.8 percent in English, 53.1 percent in math and 32.2 percent in science, on average. At Rocky Mountain Elementary four blocks away, 51.3 percent of students scored proficiently on English, with 46.4 percent proficient in math and 43.4 percent proficient in science.
In Draper, Summit Academy charter school students earned proficiency rates of 58.6 percent in English, 58.9 percent in math and 53.3 percent in science compared to rates of 62.4 percent, 58.9 percent and 53.6 percent, respectively, at Draper Elementary about a mile away.
Several charter schools posted much higher scores.
More than three-fourths, 79.9 percent, of students at Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science (NUAMES) in Layton tested proficient in science the highest single subject score among the state's charter schools.
At the same time, several charter schools posted single-digit proficiency rates in at least one subject, including the Utah International Charter School, Rose Park's Pacific Heritage Academy and the Utah Career Path High School in Kaysville. Even more posted proficiency rates in the teens.
Kim Frank, executive director of the Utah Charter Network, said academic rigor is one of several factors a family considers when choosing to enroll in a charter school. Charter schools often have specialized areas of interest or targeted programming, she explained, that doesn't always translate into high scores on a standardized test.
"It's more the culture of the charter school that [parents] are looking for," she said.
Frank said she was mostly pleased with the SAGE results, particularly at the high school level, where early-college charters such as NUAMES were among the highest scoring in the state.
She also said that considering the unfamiliarity and difficulty of the SAGE test, she was not surprised that the state's traditional schools and charter schools struggled.
"We're going to have to give it time," she said, "to see how it plays out and not be too hard on ourselves yet.".
Proficiency rates at Salt Lake Arts Academy were above the state average in all three test subjects. Overall, 55.9 percent of students were proficient in English, 58 percent were proficient in math and 53.5 percent were proficient in science.
Principal Amy Wadsworth said the value of the SAGE results is not in comparing schools to one another, but in tracking students' performance over time compared to themselves.
"We're all so different that I don't know that you can honestly lump us together," she said. "Some populations are much more at-risk than others."
At 12 years old, Salt Lake Arts Academy is one of the oldest charter schools in the state, and Wadsworth said the school's math curriculum in particular was well-suited for the switch to the Common Core math standards, which favor conceptual reasoning over rote memorization.
The principal said SAGE was a complex test with a lot of technical glitches in its first year. But as students and teachers become used to the format, Wadsworth expects performance to improve.
"We'll see everybody go up," she said.
Rowland also said that the relative youth of charter schools can be a disadvantage. When a school is new and voluntary, she said, students who are struggling at their neighborhood school will be the most likely to enroll.
And schools like hers, which target immigrant families, refugees and other English language learners, will likely never have large numbers of students reaching state performance goals.
But a new test like SAGE that focuses on a single year of proficiency doesn't allow educators at struggling schools to take comfort in the progress of their students.
"If you're at the bottom of the thermometer," she said, "you can get a lot warmer and still not be above freezing."
Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said the takeaway from SAGE for both charter schools and traditional public schools is that the state has set a higher standard and educators need to do a better job of ensuring Utah students are prepared for success beyond high school.
Van Tassell sees the SAGE results as an opportunity for educators and families to identify strengths and weaknesses and work together for improvement.
"The point of creating a charter school, or one of the points, is to tighten that bond between a parent and the teacher and principal," he said. "I look at this and say there are obviously a lot of opportunities here to bring everybody together and make sure we're all rowing in the same direction."
Charter Schools: The highs and the lows
On average, 41.7 percent of Utah students tested proficient in language arts, 38.7 mastered grade-level math concepts, and 43.7 were proficient in science. These are the high and low scores for the state's charter schools in individual subjects.
Top 10 Individual Scores
(Percent of students proficient)
Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science (NUAMES), Science, 79.9%
Utah County Academy of Science (UCAS), Science, 76.3%
Success Academy, Science, 75.7%
Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science, Language Arts, 75.6%
Intech Collegiate High School, Language Arts, 75.2%
Success Academy, Mathematics, 71.7%
George Washington Academy, Mathematics, 71.5%
Utah County Academy of Science (UCAS), Language Arts, 70.9%
Intech Collegiate High School, Science, 69.2%
John Hancock Charter School, Mathematics, 66.3%
Bottom 10 Individual Scores
(Percent of students proficient)
Utah International Charter School, Science, 2% or lower
Utah International Charter School, Mathematics, 2% or lower
Utah International Charter School, Language Arts, 3.8% or lower
Utah Career Path High School, Mathematics, 5.1%
Pacific Heritage Academy, Mathematics, 8.1%
Uintah River High School, Mathematics, 10% or lower
Paradigm High School, Mathematics, 11% or lower
Uintah River High School, Science, 11-19%
Uintah River High School, Language Arts, 11-19%
Pinnacle Canyon Academy, Mathematics, 12.5%
Summit Academy High School, Mathematics, 12.5%
*A range of scores is given when there are so few students in a class that individual scores could be identified. › XX