Check it out, if you are brave.

Some schools in Utah County have received failing grades for their achievements in the past school year, according to student assessment testing.

The good news is that, overall, the three school districts in Utah Valley are close to or higher than the state average. The bad news is that the state average isn't all that good. But there is an explanation.

Statewide, 41.7 percent of students were proficient for their grade level in language arts. For mathematics, the score was 38.7 percent. In science, 43.7 percent of all students were deemed proficient.

The difference is the tests have been changed from previous years. The new system is called SAGE, for Student Assessment for Growth and Excellence.

The previous system measured students as they marked multiple-choice options. Under SAGE testing, the questions themselves are changed, as the test progresses based on how each student answers the previous questions.

"The biggest difference is that the testing is adaptive," said Ray Morgan, assistant superintendent of Provo City School District. "The difficulty of the questions adapts to the students giving correct or incorrect answers."

In the past, a high-performing student would get a 100 percent score on a test. With the SAGE testing, however, that student's questions would become more difficult as the test continues, making the possibility of attaining a perfect score more difficult.

“There will be those who will look at these scores and compare them to last year’s results,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joel Coleman in a press release. “They aren’t comparable. This is a new era.

"The Utah State Board of Education increased the rigor and expectations in math and language arts, and the new computer-adaptive tests more precisely measure student performance than did the old fill-in-the-bubble tests. Our new standard is ‘on track for college and careers;’ it is no longer ‘has mastered course content.’ "

Seth Sorensen, who oversees curriculum and assessment for Nebo School District, said he liked the system.

"I think the assessments are great," he said. "It forces our teachers and students to look at things a different way.

"They are actually having to apply the information they have learned. They are having to actually graph problems instead of just choose a box. They are demonstrating their competency."

Nebo's overall score for mathematics was the only composite score of the three districts in the valley to be less than the state average.

Still, Sorensen sees good potential.

"It is taking us to a greater level," he said. "Our ACT scores are continuing to rise. I think their scores will be bolstered as far as college entrance exams are concerned."

Teachers can use the information to determine where to place their resources and emphasis for the rest of the school year.

"The real key is keeping in perspective what the numbers mean," said John Patten, spokesman for Alpine School District. "They do not mean what they have meant in past years. We are not measuring minimal competency standards. This is very rigorous college and tracking work.

"Given that perspective, what these SAGE tests are measuring, we are satisfied with where Alpine School District is in the first year."

The test results will help Alpine School District gear its curriculum for the future.

"We need to prepare our kids, give them learning tasks that require a greater depth of knowledge," Patten said. "It is not asking them to recall information; it is really asking them to create unique solutions to unique problems. Before it was more recognition memorization and rote learning.

"We see this as a great opportunity."

Morgan agreed, and said that is one of the reasons the scores appear lower than those in the past.

"There is a greater depth of knowledge required," he said. "It is more challenging. That is why you see a lower percentage of students being proficient. It is being tested at a higher level."

One aspect that affected the results is students who opted out of the testing. The overall participation score was naturally lowered, but the average scores were only based on the actual participants. The opt-out rate differed in the three county districts.

Of Nebo's slightly less than 30,000 students, there were several hundred who chose not to be tested, Sorensen said. Morgan reported that some Provo City School District students opted out, but the number was not significant, he said.

Alpine, the largest district in the state with more than 70,000 students, had approximately 1,500 decline to be tested, Patten said.

One of the highlights of the test in that district was the performance of seventh-graders across the board, he said.

"I think it is a measure of not just how well our junior high school teachers are doing but of the elementary schools in preparing the students," Patten said.

The district's performance in chemistry was another highlight.

"Seventy-eight percent of chemistry students at American Fork High School were proficient," he said. "Seventy-three percent of those at Lone Peak High School were and 81 percent at Pleasant Grove High School were.

"Science across the board looked pretty good, but chemistry specifically was excellent."

"Middle schools in the Provo City School District were two to four percent above the state average," Morgan said. "High schools were below the state average. That is something we are committed to work through with our teachers.

"In the science area for grades three through eight we exceeded the state average in every area but one. That was earth sciences."

"Overall, we are pretty pleased," Sorensen said of Nebo School District's scores. "It is some really good baseline data."

The test results are available at https://datagateway.schools.utah.gov/SAGE?schoolYear=2014

Daily Herald reporter Barbara Christiansen can be reached at (801) 344-2907 or bchristiansen@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @bchristiansen3.

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