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State lawmakers and education leaders took early steps Tuesday to rework Utah's SAGE test, the 6 1/2 hour year-end exam that has been the measuring stick for assessing students and their teachers for three years.
Moving high-schoolers to the ACT or SAT is one idea the committee is considering. But any shift will not be easy, said Rich Nye, associate state superintendent.
"We just now have teachers getting their heads wrapped around it," Nye told members of the Interim Education Committee at Salt Lake Community College's satellite campus in the capital city.
Still, changes are needed, noted Committee Chairman Rep. Brad Last, a Hurricane Republican. The system has a public-relations problem in addition to practical flaws, he said.
Though the test was created at the State Office of Education, critics have lambasted it as a federal mandate. The U.S. Department of Education requires annual testing in most grades, but did not design the Utah exam.
"It was created by Utah teachers," Last said. "But many outside of this room do not understand that."
A new Salt Lake Tribune poll of likely Utah voters found that 46 percent of respondents said schools should stop using SAGE.
Critics of the test say students aren't motivated to do well on SAGE because their own grades and college acceptance don't rely on the results. In March, legislators removed a requirement that SAGE scores be used to evaluate instructors.
But Utah law mandates that the scores of a computer-based test be used as the basis for the state's school grading and school turnaround programs.
Some proponents say SAGE does a good job of asking students to consider broader concepts, instead of simply memorizing facts and formulas.
The subject matter in the exam varies, depending on the grade, but the test is given to the majority of the state's students each year, in grades three through 11. The difficulty changes throughout the test, based on a student's correct and incorrect responses.
Parents may opt their students out of SAGE testing.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said many high-performing students in her district decline to take the test, driving down school-wide performance scores.
"How can we go forward with this school-grading program when it will reflect nothing really of the achievement that's going on in these schools?" Moss asked. "This is something we need to address and stop pretending it has any value to the public."
But some educators say there is value in the existing standards.
Sheri Heiter, assessment director at Weber School District, said the test has driven new approaches that are beneficial to students, as teachers guide them to think about broader mathematical concepts, for example, instead of rote memorization.
"We feel like it's a very valuable way to guide our instruction," Heiter said. "We think it would be a travesty if it were taken [away] now."
Heiter said several parents in the district warmed to the test after schools invited students and their families to "math nights," where they reviewed how algebra and geometry can help in everyday life.
Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said parents around the state don't know much about the exam and would welcome additional insight. McCay and his fellow legislators sat at laptops Tuesday during their lunch break to practice SAGE questions on topics ranging from writing to earth science.
"It's unfortunate that I have to be a legislator to have that experience," McCay said.
Other lawmakers Tuesday suggested allaying any exam fatigue among students by administering it less often or sprinkling portions of the test throughout the school year instead of in one big chunk. Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, suggested that dividing the test into a series of smaller assessments could help teachers continuously tweak their lesson plans, instead of having to wait months for a wave of data to inform their approach.
The committee did not take action Tuesday, but it is expected talk about potential changes again in its July meeting.