SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education on Thursday granted waivers from the state-required civics test on behalf of some 3,000 students.
Thus far, 30 school districts and public charter schools asked for the waivers due to the halt of in-school learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic or students’ inability to access testing.
State law requires the students to pass a civics test to earn their high school diploma. The Utah Legislature, during a recent special session, passed legislation that allows schools to obtain a waiver to excuse any student unable to complete the required civics test for high school graduation.
Although the board voted unanimously to grant the waivers, some board members questioned the rationale presented by some schools that the instruction students needed to perform well on the test is not taught until a senior’s final term of school.
Board member Jennie Earl said some of test questions cover content “not necessarily reliant upon the last class they take before graduation. There’s simple things like how many years is a president elected or a senator. My point is, some of these things are so basic.”
Board member Scott L. Hansen said he was concerned about setting a precedent for granting waivers in the future.
“I’m sensitive to many of the reasons given, but also a little bit disappointed when general anxiety and that sort of thing is cited as a reason. I don’t see for myself, at least, there’s much of a choice as to what to do now. We have to give these waivers to get these kids graduated just because of the process. Hopefully this doesn’t set in any kind of precedent for what we do in the future,” he said.
Board member Carol Lear said she doesn’t care for the civics test “for a lot of different reasons.” As a practical matter, schools are on their honor with respect to how many seniors take the test or don’t take the test, she said.
“It would be up to the LEA (local education agency) to either allow the student to graduation or hold the student’s feet to the fire,” she said.
Statewide, the Class of 2020 includes more than 47,700 public school students, so waiver requests thus far comprise about 6% of the state’s graduating seniors.
Alpine School District requested waivers on behalf of 786 students citing concern about students’ access to technology, social and emotional well-being, students with special needs and those otherwise “overwhelmed with learning environment and communication abilities.”
Others, like Granite School District, pointed to an inability to conduct the test due to social distancing requirements put in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A district spokesman said 219 students need waivers but state board documents show the number is 1,048.
Many schools cited mounting student stress due to distance learning while others said students did not have reliable access to technology to complete the classes they need to pass the test. Others have been unable to contact students since the “soft closure” of Utah schools was announced March 13.
The civics test requirement has been in place since 2015, when Utah lawmakers voted to require public high school students to pass a 50-question basic civics test before graduating.
Lawmakers considered legislation to eliminate the requirement earlier this year but HB152 was defeated in the Utah House.
Lawmakers passed HB334, which creates a three-year civic engagement pilot program to evaluate the benefits of and methods for implementing a civic engagement project requirement for high school graduation. The legislation does not eliminate the civics test requirement.