ST. GEORGE — Students in the Washington County School District begin preparing for end of level assessments early in the school year.
Brad Ferguson, the district’s director of assessment, learning and research, told St. George News the Utah State Board of Education requires students to participate in exams that assess their competence in English, math and science from third to 11th grade.
These assessments vary from grade to grade. Third to eighth grade students take the RISE assessments — which replaced SAGE testing in 2018 — while ninth and 10th grade students take the Utah ASPIRE Plus, which began this spring and offers students an opportunity to see how they might perform on the ACT. Finally, 11th grade students take the ACT at no cost to them.
“Results from these assessments give an indication to teachers and parents how well students are mastering the Utah State Core Standards,” Ferguson said.
The standards are broken down into various categories and sorted by topic and grade level.
Ferguson said the best way for teachers to help their students prepare is by following what is laid out in each category.
From as early as August, teachers use visual presentations and hands-on experiments to illustrate abstract or complex lessons in English, math and science on which students will later be tested.
Each of the topics is included in or introduces a broader concept included in Utah’s Core Standards or benchmarks, including earth sciences, biology and physics. These standards are then used to develop questions used on the assessments.
Schools like Crimson View Elementary focus on experiential learning, offering kids an on-campus greenhouse to help them learn about abstract biological concepts.
Paul Durrant, the head of the science department at Dixie Middle School, had his students use toilet paper squares to build a model of the solar system with emphasis on distance between specific planets and the sun. Students worked with a partner to convert centimeters into “Earth Units” and “Astronomical Units” into toilet paper squares.
Likewise, at the beginning of the semester, eighth grade students at Dixie Middle School studied surface tension by placing as many drops of five different liquids, like water or vinegar, onto five different pennies. Students learned that the more drops that could fit on a penny, the higher the liquid’s surface tension is.
In addition to these hands-on lessons, students are given a number of practice tests before the end of level assessments begin in order to get them familiar with the tests’ formats throughout the year.
Bloomington Elementary set a goal earlier this year to increase literacy and math scores for all students by 3%. In order to see the development and to prepare students for end of level assessments, they are interviewed before they are given each practice test. Teachers also work with students to develop goals to work toward.
In 2018, the district’s ACT scores were just under the state and national averages, with a composite score of 19.9, while Utah’s average sits at 20.4 and the national average at 20.8.
However, Ferguson said Washington County students are performing at or above the state’s average in the RISE and ASPIRE Plus assessments, and students in higher grade levels are performing particularly well in science-related sections. In English and mathematics, the district surpasses the state average by about 4% in each category, while in science, Washington County students scored 7% higher than the Utah average.
While maintaining the overall positive trend, the district is working to improve test scores for some of its subgroups, including students with disabilities, students where English is a second language and students from low-income families.
The state of Utah is seeing a significant achievement gap between the average student and in-need students, and officials are hoping to see this gap decrease.
The Utah State Board of Education is using test scores to quantify its students’ proficiency in a number of subjects. The board then uses the test scores and other information gathered to set standards and goals for each district. Overall, the state is working to cut the gap between the 2016 baseline rate and 100% proficiency by one-third in all areas.
Test participation is also used to determine federal school funding and school grading statewide, according to Every Student Succeeds Act. Although the ACT does not affect federal funding, annual achievement tests influence a school’s access to funds.
Utah is required to have a minimum of 95% participation rate in order to receive federal funding. In 2017, so many parents excused their children from the exams that the state counted absent students as failing in order to receive funding.
“While student testing is generally not thought to be the best part of what goes on in schools, the results provide important feedback to teachers and parents about how students are doing in school,” Ferguson said.
Most end of level assessments are administered anytime between March 23 and May 15, while 11th grade students complete the ACT around the end of February or in March.
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