Feds reject Utah school testing waiver


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The state of Utah will ask the U.S. Department of Education for a one-year reprieve from a federal requirement that 95 percent of students participate in statewide testing.

The Utah State Board of Education voted Thursday to authorize State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson to seek the exemption while the state continues to work through initiatives intended to increase test participation rates, which now average 94 percent.

Federal statutes require states to report to the Education Department how they will meet the requirements under their respective plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act. The plans are essentially applications for federal funding, which in Utah’s case is about about $123 million.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education rejected Utah’s first request to opt out of the testing requirements.

“The Utah State Board of Education does not sufficiently demonstrate how the request will advance student academic achievement,” a May 31 letter to Dickson from a federal education official states.

With a July 1 deadline looming, Utah is one of four states that have not yet received federal approval of their plans. The others are California, Florida and Oklahoma.

While some members of the State School Board say Utah’s state law — which permits parents, guardians or students over the age of 18 to request to be excused from tests administered statewide — is an important acknowledgement of parental rights, others says not complying with federal law puts federal funding at risk.

The funds are earmarked for programs that assist children experiencing homelessness, live in poverty or whose parents are migrant farmworkers, among other initiatives. The funding also supports professional development for teachers.

“I’m very frightened we’re playing chicken for $100 million for these kids,” said board member Kathleen Riebe.

State School Board Chairman Mark Huntsman acknowledged, “We’re a little bit vulnerable and time is running out.”

It is unclear whether the federal government would withhold the funding for the Title I programs but federal education officials told Dickson: “Come July 1, we don’t have a mechanism to provide you with funding” if Utah’s plan has not been approved by that point, she said.

However, both Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel have been in regular communication with the superintendent’s office expressing their willingness to continue to work through the issues, Dickson said.

“There’s a window cracked open and I believe Florida will ask for something similar,” Dickson said.

In recent years, growing numbers of eligible students have opted out of statewide testing. In 2017, 5.9 percent of eligible students opted out, up from 3.1 percent in 2015. Among charter school, the opt-out rate was 13 percent in 2017, and averages about 36 percent among virtual schools, according to state data.

Federal law requires a 95 percent participation rate but Utah’s rate falls below that threshold.

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