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SALT LAKE CITY – The debate over testing in Utah schools just got more complicated thanks to a new plan with the U.S. Department of Education that will classify some students who opt out of statewide testing as having failed the tests.
Under the state’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Utah will receive more than $120 million in federal title funding for under-performing schools and at-risk students.
To get that money, Utah must comply with the federal requirement that no more than 5 percent of students at an individual school opt out of standardized testing.
In 2017, 5.9 percent of Utah students chose not to take the tests. At charter schools, the opt-out rate jumps to 13 percent.
The change makes it so Utah will be “effectively counting non-tested students in excess of 5 percent as non-proficient for purposes of accountability and identification of schools for support and improvement under ESSA,” according to the plan.
“It’s concerning,” said Hal Sanderson, director of research and assessment and the Canyons School District. “It’s hard for the teachers to have any of the kids opt out.”
Sanderson said educators want to get a complete picture of how students and schools are performing so that they can make adjustments. He worried that incomplete testing data won’t give them accurate information to make decisions.
“You’re mixing together those kids who took the test and didn’t do well and have some struggles — and we need to make an adjustment — and those kids who chose not to take the test,” Sanderson said. “They’re mixed together as not being proficient. So you’re mixing two situations together and it’s hard to disentangle what’s going on.”
At the Canyons School District, 5.4 percent of students opted out of tests in 2017. That’s compared to 21.1 percent of students avoiding the tests in the Provo School District, and 21.3 percent not taking the tests in Park City.
Officials with the Utah Education Association said this development further complicates decisions being made by parents about the pros and cons of testing.
“I do think they are making an informed decision of why they want their students to either participate in standardized testing or not,” said Sara Jones, UEA’s director of education excellence and government relations. “Part of that has been the over emphasis on standardized testing for so many years.”
If we’re not going to have that federal title money coming in, and we’re already underfunded in the state, what would we do without that title money?
–Sara Jones, Utah Education Association
Jones said that while the change adds to the controversy over standardized testing, she’s glad the state will still be receiving the federal money to support programs that homeless children and struggling schools in low-income areas.
“I don’t believe that the state has a plan if there wasn’t that money coming in,” she said. “If we’re not going to have that federal title money coming in, and we’re already underfunded in the state, what would we do without that title money?”
Because of negotiations and denied requests to be exempted from the 95 percent testing participation rule, Utah’s ESSA plan was significantly delayed and finally approved last week.
Since Utah is changing which standardized test will be using in the upcoming school year, schools will be given a one-year reprieve from grades. Officials said that could give the state school board more time to address the issue of too many students opting out of tests.