Going Beyond Test Scores

Story By MICHELLE JAMES

The Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) tests students’ proficiency in various areas and affects both students and teachers in schools throughout Utah, while they prepare for the test and as they process the test’s data.

The test assesses students’ knowledge in three areas; language arts, mathematics and science. Reports released from the data of the test show each grade at each school’s proficiency level.

In August, the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) released SAGE test scores from tests taken in 2014.

The data released tells teachers how proficient their students were in the different subjects, and shows what they need to work on.

Rose Park Elementary, in Salt Lake City school district, is a Title I school that had proficiency ratings of 25 percent in language arts, 34 percent in mathematics and 20 percent in science, according to data from USOE data gateway.

“For many reasons, SAGE scores do not always reflect what kids know or can do,” said Nicole Warren, the principle at Rose Park. She has been principle at Rose Park for five years. Warren said how factors like the students’ attitudes, anxiety and focus all can affect scores.

Thulasi Seshan worked with Rose Park as part of a University of Utah Honors class and during an internship last year. She has worked with classes from third to sixth grade.

“SAGE test scores don’t collect behavioral data or personal history,” said Seshan.

She said how these are the things that affect students’ ability to take the test, and their educational success. The test doesn’t show the context that it was taken in.

“So SAGE testing attempts to isolate the test from the context, but ultimately, you can’t succeed at that, and even if or when you do, your results immediately become meaningless,” said Seshan.

The test affects not only students, but also the teachers.

“It’s a stressful time of year,” said Warren. She said teachers get excited and watch for scores, waiting to see growth and proficiency levels.

At Rose Park, there is also the factor that 53.6 percent of the students are English language learners according to USOE data. Warren explained how English learners have various levels of proficiency with the language, and usually speaking and listening develop faster than reading and writing skills. She said this can lead people to think students have a better understanding of complex vocabulary than they do.

For limited English proficiency students in the school there was a 6.9 percent proficiency rate according to SAGE data from USOE, and for the whole state this rate is 8 percent.

Warren said they help prepare these students by giving them experience with the type of questions beforehand and reinforcing vocabulary used in the test. Some parts of the test are also read out loud.

While the test provides vocabulary challenges for English learner students, the SAGE test brought changes for other students. Utah changed from CRT to SAGE testing in 2013.

“SAGE increases rigor and expectations in all grades,” said Warren.

Students will need time to adjust to the new care standards that come with these new tests. Warren said, for example, kindergarten students will go through school with these new standards and when they get to higher grades will have been learning at that rigor for many years, unlike other students.

Warren said SAGE addresses science and social studies through language arts standards, and focuses on informational and analytic writing.

“The purpose of the new standards is to better prepare students to be college- and career-ready,” Warren said.

In a news release from USOE about 2014’s SAGE test score, Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said, “Our task now is to keep moving in the right direction until all Utah students are proficient in core subjects.”

Although the SAGE test is new, some people are already considering ending it.

In a Public Education Subcommittee hearing, Draper Senator Howard Stephenson said, “There will be legislation this year to create a task force to look at doing away with the SAGE test entirely.”

The programs that are a part of Rose Park work to help with student success, and in turn, SAGE test scores. Rose Park Elementary has Rose Park Academy, which Warren said is “unique in the district.” It’s an after-school program where the school can make its own budget. The program has around 150 students enrolled, and the students can choose their classes based on what they’re interested in.

Warren said the program is a safe place the students can stay after school with a staff that cares for them.

“It is like a family in many ways,” she said.

Another program is a grandparent program the school has where grandparents come into classrooms and help provide a “consistent adult” for the kids.

Other services the school has for its students are a mental health therapist, a health clinic for both students and members of the community and a full-time counselor. These resources help students miss less school.

Warren said how the school is also working on becoming a trauma-sensitive school to handle behavioral problems and learning concerns. Trauma-sensitive environments can help change negative behavior and help keep a student engaged in learning, she said.

Beyond the test scores are students and schools with many factors in their lives. The education of students goes beyond test score results, and involves many people and steps.

Seshan explained the moment when she can finally help a student make a connection.

“It’s magical,” she said.

University Neighborhood Partners aims to widen access to education for west side residents

University Neighborhood Partners, located on the west side of Salt Lake City, partners with 25 organizations across the Salt Lake Valley to provide access to education and services for residents of that community.

Story and photo by LAURA SCHMITZ

When Sarah Munro began her dissertation at the University of Michigan, she saw a need to bring access to education to minority communities.

After conducting research in Italy and receiving her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2002, she now works as the associate director of University Neighborhood Partners to make that need a reality.

As part of the president’s office at the University of Utah, UNP is “a bridge between the U and nonprofits on the west side,” Munro said.

UNP was launched in 2002 and acts as that bridge by creating partnerships under three main “umbrellas” — youth and education, community leadership and capacity building.

Serving two ZIP codes and seven neighborhoods on the west side of Salt Lake City, UNP currently boasts about 34 partnerships with 25 organizations. Munro admitted that monitoring the success of UNP is difficult, given that much of its work is seen only by the success of its partners.

“We’re always the convener,” Munro said. “We don’t actually do the work — we bring in community organizers to do the work.”

Munro collaborates with UNP staff in choosing organizations with which to partner. She said she and the seven to 10 staff members then maintain partnerships through ample communication and a positive attitude.

“We’re in constant communication,” Munro said of UNP and its partners. “We sit in both worlds and anticipate needs and goals.”

UNP works by building relationships with organizations that work with underrepresented populations, including refugees and undocumented immigrants. Munro said language, transportation and childcare are major hurdles west-side residents face in accessing basic freedoms, including education and healthcare.

“Our policy is we help anyone who comes to the table,” Munro said. “We don’t choose who we help, the organizations do. We simply create the table.”

According to 2010 census data, about 13 percent of Salt Lake City residents are Hispanic — a 78 percent increase from 2000 census data. As demographics continue to change in the United States, Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, Munro said institutions of higher education must adapt to prepare future students for college by widening access.

“A long-term goal is to move students from the west side to succeed, completing high school and coming to the U,” Munro said. “In 20 years, if the U can’t be more effective at this, it will no longer be the flagship university in the state.”

Rosemarie Hunter, director of UNP, was inspired to join hands with UNP after her time as a social worker. She was involved in the U’s College of Social Work for 16 years.

Hunter said education allows individuals to make choices and decisions from a place of knowledge.

“Education is a shared value across all communities and families,” she said. “Education really is power — anytime you can get access to education, you can take better care of yourself and your family.”

Hunter said UNP’s goal is not to try to jump in and “fix” everything, but to create a “mutual shared space” of learning between members of the west-side community and the U, allowing the U to change to support a more diverse population.

“What we look to do is go into existing places to (allow west-side residents) to interface with university life while going about their daily life,” Hunter said. “The U is learning a lot from residents and their cultural backgrounds and life experiences.”

Another UNP staff member, Brizia Ceja, began working for the organization as a freshman at the U as a student intern.

Originally from Mexico, Ceja moved to the U.S. at 13. She then grew up on the west side and still has family living there. She said she is therefore able to relate to that community on a personal level.

“I’m able to identify with most families I work with,” Ceja said. “I come from an immigrant family. I am the first person in my family to go to college.”

Ceja now works as an academic consultant for UNP to facilitate partnerships with middle and high schools. She said schools on the west side are often crowded with one academic adviser serving many.

“We want to start working with them young to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks,” Ceja said. “We want to make sure students have a safe place with (academic) mentors.”

Ceja said she wants children on the west side to view college as not only a possibility, but a natural progression after high school.

“I want them to know (college) is an option,” Ceja said. “Just like high school follows middle school, college follows high school.”

UNP has established partnerships with two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools on the west side of Salt Lake City. The organization continues to foster relationships with these students to help prepare hundreds for a collegiate experience.