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Overhaul of school testing system discussed, given preliminary approval

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 5:58 p.m. MST

» View our Utah politics blog, with live updates and analysis of the 2012 legislative sessions.

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would overhaul the student assessment test system used by the state's public schools advanced out of committee Tuesday. 

HB15, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is the State Board of Education's top priority this session — trumping an increase in funding to cover the estimated 12,500 new students entering Utah's public schools next year. 

"I think it's exciting that you see our school board here with me," Hughes told the House Education Committee. "I think it narrates the importance of this bill."

The proposal, which has an estimated annual price tag of $6.7 million, would eliminate the state's current assessment system — the Criterion Reference Test — in favor of adaptive computer exams. The new tests would adapt as students progress, meaning as they answer questions correctly, the test would get more difficult, and as they get answers wrong, the test would lighten up. 

"It adapts to the aptitude of the students," Hughes said. "This information, once the test is taken, will be available immediately."

The state has been running a pilot adaptive test program in select schools and educators and lawmakers alike have been encouraged by the results.

If made into law, the tests would be implemented in the 2014-15 school year, if not sooner. Although the bill passed the committee unanimously, some lawmakers took issue with a part of the bill that referenced the Common Core State Standards — curriculum standards Utah adopted a year ago that were developed in collaboration with several other states. 

The bill stated that when a company is eventually hired to develop the specific assessment questions, the test would need to reflect and be in line with those Common Core standards.

"We're not interested in putting in code some statutory linkage to other states," Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. "(We should) divest ourselves of any baggage that might come."

Rep. Carol Moss, R-Holladay, objected. 

"This is increasing rigor and we keep talking about national tests and how we rank and so on. Why are we hiding from the fact that we want to be uniform in certain things?" Moss said. "That is the truth and we should state it the way it developed and evolved." 

At Christensen's request, the committee voted to modify the bill to take reference to other states out, but not before the discussion delved into the merits of the Common Core Standards themselves.

Peter Cannon, speaking on behalf of the Eagle Forum, warned the committee of a program that could prove to be a way of letting the federal government survey children. 

"I ask that you not be mesmerized," he said. "If we want to have national research done through our children, this is the way to make it happen." 

Hughes brought the conversation back to the bill at hand, which he said has the potential to make a significant impact on student achievement.

"I don't want to distract this committee from what we're considering," he said. "I want something that compares our students wholly. ... We want them to give us a yardstick, one that we can compare across the board."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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