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Lawmakers, educators consider consequences of opting children out of testing

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers recommended a bill Monday to clarify parents' right to opt their children out of statewide tests in school.

While that right remains in statute, lawmakers and educators worry how opting too many children out of standardized testing can skew accountability metrics and impact federal education dollars, among other consequences.

"That's the balance we're trying to achieve," Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said. "We want to balance for parental rights, and we also have the state accountability system. It's really tough."

SB204, sponsored by Osmond, would establish uniform procedures for parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. It would also allow students to be excused from school for medical or family reasons if the parent notifies the school one day in advance and if the student agrees to make up the missed coursework.

Heather Gardner, a parent and school teacher in Bountiful, said she opted her 9-year-old daughter out of testing, but the girl was still required by the school to take a replacement test and a standardized reading test. Gardner has since taken her children out of public school.

"A parent should have the right to opt out of assessments that are not valid or reliable, such as SAGE, that have not been field tested and that, in my opinion, are experimental in nature," Gardner said. "I'm not against assessment. What I am against is the data collection that goes on of the personally identifiable information of the children."

While education leaders agree that parents should be able to opt their children out of standardized testing, they are also concerned with how student score averages will be affected if the lowest- or highest-performing students are removed from the equation.

"It seems to me it's extraordinarily problematic if you have 9 or 10 percent of students in any given population opting out, and it calls into question the validity of the evaluation system," said Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction.

Smith, a former superintendent of the Ogden School District, said opt out rates are "nowhere near" uniform across the state, with less than 0.5 percent in his former district and nearly 10 percent in others. Title I funds could be affected in areas of high opt outs as federal accountability systems often require testing participation of 95 percent or better.

Smith, who spoke in support of Osmond's bill, said the Utah State Office of Education will be looking further at how to balance parental rights and the need for student assessment.

"This will not be the last bill of this sort," Smith said. "If we in education have so fundamentally missed the opportunity to communicate to our parents that valid assessment is essential to valid and reliable education, we need to go back and retool a little bit.

"(The bill) puts us in a place where we have to live to attempt to do by persuasion what we cannot and should not do by force," he said.

SB204 passed in an 8-1 vote and now goes to the House floor. Email: Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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