Jordan Allred,
Members of the State School Board gave preliminary approval Thursday to a policy that would clarify how parents can opt their children out of state-mandated tests at school.

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the State School Board gave preliminary approval Thursday to a policy that would clarify how parents can opt their children out of state-mandated tests at school.

But for one test, opting out could come at a high price.

State lawmakers this year passed legislation requiring Utah students to pass a civics exam, one administered to those applying for U.S. citizenship, in order to graduate from high school. In the same year, the Legislature approved a bill clarifying the state's opt-out policy to include any state or federally mandated assessment.

While the new law allows parents to opt their high schoolers out of taking the civics exam, it doesn't remove the requirement that students pass the exam to get their diploma.

"The consequence with this one associated with current legislation is if they do opt out, they opt out of graduation," said Rich Nye, associate superintendent for data, assessment and accountability at the Utah State Office of Education.

The new law requiring students to pass the civics test initially brought criticism from educators who worried about the high-stakes approach of tying additional requirements to graduation. The law goes into effect for students graduating next year.

But as implications become clear about how the two laws go together, educators are becoming even more concerned with what it could mean for students, according to State School Board member Dixie Allen.

"I've been getting lots of pushback from districts about the civics exam because it's mandatory for graduation, and they are really frustrated and worried about opting kids out of it," Allen said.

The policy will go before the full State School Board for final approval Friday.

This year's opt-out law came in response to legislation passed last year, which created uncertainty for educators in balancing parents' right to preside over the education of their children and the need for schools to gauge the performance of their students. It was also unclear what tests were included in the state's opt-out policy, such as different forms of the Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence, known as SAGE.

Since SAGE was adopted two years ago as Utah's summative assessment for students in third through 11th grades, more parents are choosing to exempt their students from taking the test.

In the 2014-15 school year, state education leaders expected about 1.2 million SAGE summative tests to be administered. About 3 percent of them — more than 35,000 tests — were not taken because of parents opting their children out of testing, a 1 percent increase from last year, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

Twenty schools had a parental exclusion rate over 20 percent. Among those, eight were online or virtual schools, 10 were charter schools, and two were district schools. School districts on average increased their opt-out rate from 1.47 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 2.46 percent the next year. Charter schools went from an exclusion rate of 6.97 percent to 9.97 percent.

The Provo School District had the highest opt-out rate among Utah's 41 districts, with a rate of 5 percent in the 2014-15 school year that increased to almost 12 percent the following year.

Paradigm High School, which enrolls more than 600 students, went from an opt-out rate of about 23 percent to almost 54 percent.

As the opt-out rates climb in schools across the state, educators are also questioning how well schools and districts are able to measure overall student achievement.

"I've heard from teachers and administrators, the frustration that (when) students opt out, they don't have a valid way of evaluating students," Allen said.

It's unclear if the conflict between the opt-out law and the civics test requirement was an unintended consequence of legislation passed this year. Board member Spencer Stokes suggested having lawmakers each year consider an omnibus bill to address such conflicts.

"I think we ought to have a discussion about every year having a legislator run a cleanup bill after we've tried to go through and implement this stuff in administrative rule," Stokes said, "so that we can fix things like this."

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