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Chelsey Allder, Deseret News
Audrey Marianos listens to a lesson at Legacy Preparatory Academy in North Salt Lake City Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid growing controversy surrounding high-stakes summative testing, Utah lawmakers are hoping to clarify a law that allows parents to opt their children out of some school tests.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously recommended a bill Tuesday that addresses some of the challenges teachers and parents have had with the statute.

SB204 would allow parents to excuse their children from "any summative, interim or formative test that is not locally developed," as well as "any test that is federally mandated or mandated by the state."

The bill would prohibit schools from requiring parents to meet with administrators in order to opt their children out, as well as rewarding students who do participate in testing.

SB204 also has implications for student absences. Currently, schools are required to accommodate a request from a parent to excuse a student for family events or health care visits without a doctor's note. The bill would require parents to submit a written note at least one day in advance of the absence, and students would have to make up the coursework they missed.

Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that sought to strike a balance between a parent's right to direct the education of their children and the need to adequately assess student performance. It allowed parents to excuse their children from statewide exams, including SAGE, or student assessment of growth and excellence.

But the law left some questions unanswered, such as which tests, specifically, fell under the rule and how districts should administer the policy. Subsequently, some districts came up with their own implementation strategies, such as requiring parents to meet face-to-face with district administrators and sign waivers before opting their children out of testing.

Early this month, the Utah State Office of Education determined that parents do not have the option to opt their children out of some tests that aren't federally or state-mandated. Those include SAGE interim tests, DIBELS — a reading fluency assessment — and other locally developed formative assessments.

That didn't sit well with Heather Gardner, a teacher and mother of five, who said her 9-year-old daughter was required by Legacy Preparation Academy to take a DIBELS exam despite her formal requests to the contrary.

"I think assessment is important. I'm a teacher," Gardner said. "I am not OK with requiring them to take a test when a parent has submitted a legal opt-out and a legal refusal."

Elizabeth Hatch, executive director at Legacy Preparatory Academy, said the school allowed parents to excuse their children from DIBELS and other tests prior to the change in policy by the Utah State Office of Education that made the test ineligible for opt-out. Since then, school leaders have followed the new policy, informed parents of the change and invited them to discuss concerns with administrators, she said.

"We try to respond with the understanding that it is in our charter that we're going to be a data-driven school, and so we try to communicate to the best of our ability what our school does and what we do well and try to meet the needs of all of our students," Hatch said. "We oftentimes gather that information through assessments so that we can know what attention they do need."

Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said it would be up to the Utah State Office of Education to determine which tests would apply, but he hopes SB204 will provide needed clarity and legislative guidance on parental rights.

"We're trying to clarify a little bit more prescriptively. Now, I recognize the potential risk there is that we're so prescriptive that we create the law of Moses in statute. And I'm not trying to do that," Osmond said. "I am trying to balance being clear about what we meant and allow the state board and (schools) to form rules to support that."

Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said the Utah State Office of Education is drafting a rule that would provide additional "procedural safeguards" for parental rights as the rule is implemented.

"A parent has an absolute right to opt their children out of testing," Smith said. "I would frankly hope that (schools) would engage with parents, because assessment is a fundamental part of education. … Our teachers need to be able to understand their children on a deep level."

The bill now goes before the full Senate for consideration.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: MorganEJacobsen