SALT LAKE CITY — Every spring as year-end standardized testing begins, Wendy Hart stops by her kids' schools to pick them up and take them home early.
It's become a yearly routine for the Highland mother and her ninth- and 11th-grade students, while the majority of their classmates spend part of their final weeks of school taking the student assessment of growth and excellence, Utah's computer-adaptive test known as SAGE.
Hart's reasons for exempting her kids from the test are mostly philosophical, though she sees the hours her children would spend testing better invested elsewhere. But using SAGE to calculate school grades, to put schools in academic turnaround status, and until recently, to form part of teacher evaluations limit the flexibility of parents and teachers, she said.
"The biggest thing for me is the control of the education system," said Hart, who is a member of the Board of Education for the Alpine School District. "Opting out is a way of pushing back against the lack of parental control and giving teachers more autonomy, more flexibility to do what they think is best instead of making them feel like they're tied to the test."
Hart's is one side of an issue that is being felt on a growing scale in schools throughout the state as SAGE nears the end of its third administration. Since 2013, Utah has gone from having an average opt-out rate from standardized tests of 0.05 percent to a rate more than 60 times higher.
In some schools, the portion of students opting out represents more than half of the student body. Statewide, it represents more than 37,000 tests that went unfilled last year.
It's contributed to a debate that's made state leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, question whether SAGE should continue at all. In new opposition to SAGE and the Common Core, Herbert last week asked that the mandatory status of SAGE be removed for high schools, where opt-out rates are highest.
And in some places, parents opting their kids out of SAGE in opposition to school grades and standardized testing is driving schools toward a lower school grade and even more testing for students.
For that reason, Julie Adamic all but winces with every student who is opted out of SAGE at John Hancock Charter School. Three years ago, the school had an opt-out rate of zero. So far this year, about 18 percent of students at the school are now exempt from the test, probably with more to come before testing has ended, she said.
"Unfortunately for us, those students have historically brought up our scores as a school and reflected our program," Adamic said. "Now because I have such a high percentage of our students opting out, and they typically tend to be those high fliers, it gives a skewed version to the public of what's going on here."
Data from SAGE can give teachers a preview of the needs of their incoming students, insight on the effectiveness of the school's teaching and overall program, and direction in choosing the types of professional development needed for educators, Adamic said.
But teachers at John Hancock are having to create additional tests to measure the needs of those students who opt out of SAGE — tests that then have to be administered schoolwide to get accurate, comparable results.
"In a world where everybody's saying, 'We want less assessments,' this is actually driving us to look at an additional (assessment) so we still have the data," she said. "It makes it very difficult for us."
A statewide trend
Hart and Adamic aren't alone.
In 2013, just prior to the implementation of SAGE, 65 out of 85 charter schools in Utah, and 19 of the state's 41 school districts, had an opt-out rate of zero, according to data obtained by the Deseret News through a public records request.
By 2015, SAGE's second year of administration, only six of the state's 100 charter schools had no opt outs, and all 41 school districts had students opted out by their parents.
Overall opt-out rates increased only slightly during the final years of Utah's previous statewide exam, known as the CRT, from .03 percent in 2009 to .05 percent in 2013.
But from 2013 to 2015, the portion of students exempt from taking the test increased from .05 percent to 2.4 percent at district schools, and from .1 percent to 9.9 percent at charters.
Overall, the state opt-out rate in 2015 was 3.14 percent, representing more than 37,000 tests not administered.
Those rates have steadily climbed for all student ages year after year, but older grades continue to see the highest portion of students opting out. Third-graders last year had an opt-out rate of 2.4 percent, while that of 12th-graders was almost twice as high. Education leaders say this is likely because more tests are given in high school than earlier grades, such as the ACT, advanced placement and other college preparation exams.
SAGE's higher rate of exemptions from those of the CRT stem from other factors.
Some parents were initially opposed to SAGE because it tested students against the Common Core State Standards, a controversial series of academic benchmarks that raised the bar for students in math and English. Concerns on a national level over excessive testing also began to surface around that time, according to Rich Nye, interim deputy superintendent at the Utah State Office of Education.
"A natural result of that would be an opt out," Nye said.
Utah lawmakers in 2014 also passed legislation outlining parents' right to opt their children out of standardized testing, which hadn't previously been spelled out in state code. That law was further clarified in SB204 last year, allowing parents to exclude their children from "any assessment" that is mandated on a state or federal level.
"It's a parental right, and we need to respect that as a state agency," Nye said.
SAGE is a computer-adaptive test, meaning it conforms to each student's abilities based on how they answer each question. The test is also different from other assessments in that it is not entirely multiple choice; students often have to show the process they used to get their answer.
While the new format is intended to give teachers a more detailed picture of student performance, some worry that it puts excessive pressure on students, who may be academically skilled but have an aversion to testing, according to Heber City resident Alisa Ellis, who opts her children out of SAGE.
"I don't believe the test accurately measures student success or the teachers' ability to teach," said Ellis, a candidate for district 12 of the Utah State Board of Education. "I have seven kids. They're all very different. Some of them test very well, some of them don't test very well."
Ellis enrolls her four youngest kids in an online at-home charter school, while one of her sons is in 10th grade at Wasatch High School. She said one reason why testing exclusions may be higher in charter schools than traditional schools is because of higher parental involvement in charters.
"Parents who are putting their kids in charters are often looking for a different approach to education," she said. "They don't want to be standardized, and sometimes these high-stakes test are seen as a way to standardize education."
Parents and lawmakers have criticized the high stakes nature of SAGE, on which school grades and even some school funding may depend. Yet state law prohibits schools and teachers from using SAGE in a student's grade or their eligibility for academic advancement.
As a result, some students are less inclined to give the test their full effort and participation at the expense of overall school performance.
"I think we're taking education and turning it into a science instead of an art, and I think it needs to be more of an art because we're dealing with humans," Hart said. "I don't have a problem with testing, and I don't really have a problem with standardized testing. But I have a problem with the way that we're using it now."
Some are also critical of the test as a whole, claiming that it has never been validated by an independent evaluator. Education leaders, however, say the test has undergone extensive study by outside agencies, including in several states that contract with Utah to use questions from SAGE in their own schools.
The State School Board currently contracts with American Institutes for Research, or AIR, to administer and report the state's test system. The company, based in Washington, D.C., has both an assessment focus as well as a behavioral research focus.
Many parents who opt their children out of SAGE worry that their students' data wouldn't be protected from being used in other research purposes, either through AIR or other entities.
"That's an overwhelming concern," Adamic said of opt-out cases in her school.
But education leaders say the state has taken measures to protect student data in its contract with American Institutes for Research, which directs the company to "safeguard, protect, and maintain the confidentiality of any student level data of any kind which come into its possession in the performance of services under this agreement."
The State School Board has begun discussions to find a new vendor for the test as its contract with AIR ends in 2018.
Nye said he hopes that process will improve parents' confidence in the state's protection of student data to where "rather than seeing increasing opt-out rates, we see decreasing opt-out rates for the value that that exercise or that practice provides."
Nye said even though the statewide opt-out rate of 3 percent doesn't significantly alter the big picture, it's a trend that's readily felt in individual district and charter schools.
Last year, Olympus High School had some 24 students opt out of SAGE. This year, after the process was simplified statewide with a standardized application for parents, the school now has more than 160 kids opting out of the test, according to Principal Stephen Perschon.
Many of them take honors classes or have a relatively high GPA, and that doesn't bode well for the school's grade this year, he said. Last year, Olympus got a B.
"It has enormous impacts on the school," Perschon said. "I truly believe we're an A school, but I'm concerned with the number of students opting out that it actually may pull our school grade down even more."
State law requires that neither schools nor teachers can be negatively affected in school grading or employee evaluations based on the percentage of students who opt out, though a school's overall SAGE score may still be higher or lower, depending on which students opt out.
But federal law requires that all students be included in national accountability reports, and those excluded from SAGE are reported as nonparticipants. This may affect a school's qualification for certain federal dollars, though the implications of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind last year, aren't yet fully clear when it comes to testing participation.
"What ESSA allows states to do is determine what those consequences are," Nye said. "Something the State Board of Education will work on in the coming weeks and months is identifying what those might be."
But more critical than the school grade is the opportunity for teachers to use the data to improve their instruction and conform to student needs, according to Perschon.
He and his teachers take the summer to dissect the data and prepare for what students will need the following school year, such as accelerated learning or intervention courses. Teachers can also set goals based on what they learn from SAGE.
At John Hancock Charter School, teachers are getting closer to finding their own way of measuring the needs of those students who opt out. It's a step up from the alternative, which is having excluded students read a book, do other assignments — which state law prohibits from being applied to a student's grade — or sending them home.
But the learning curve hasn't leveled off yet since being caught off guard by the jump in opt outs between the CRT and SAGE two years ago, Adamic said.
"Here we are on our third year, literally facing the same problem," she said. "The data really helped drive our program and our instruction. We found it was very valuable. We still believe in that data. We also believe in being held accountable to the public."
Independent of it all, educators are encouraging parents to talk with teachers and school administrators if they're considering opting their child out of SAGE. Part of that conversation, Nye said, should be about if and how the school is using the test to improve student outcomes.
"I would strongly recommend that parents have the conversation with their (school)," he said, and "if they do indeed choose to opt out, understanding that doing so really takes one of the larger measures out of the picture when it comes to understanding student performance."
SAGE has faced ongoing scrutiny and debate from lawmakers since its inception in 2014. They've brought forward several proposals to change the test, and a few have passed.
This year, the Legislature prohibited schools from using the test in teacher evaluations and allowed high schools the option of not administering the test to 11th-graders
More changes are on the horizon.
Herbert last week asked that the test's mandatory status be removed for high schools altogether. He also changed his tone on the Common Core State Standards, calling for their removal from the Utah Core in light of continued divisiveness.
Herbert wanted to add SAGE to a list of issues set to be discussed during a special legislative session next week, where the Legislature is expected to restore funding to other education programs after a line-item veto by the governor. But after criticism from House Speaker Greg Hughes and Jonathan Johnson, who is running against Herbert in next month's primary election, Herbert backed off Tuesday.
Even before the end of the session in March, testing and accountability were identified as a key legislative focus for the interim. Parents' right to direct the education of their children, including the ability to opt them out of testing, also remains a legislative priority, according to Ogden Republican Ann Millner, Senate chairwoman of the Education Interim Committee.
"Parents really have to be key decision-makers in what's appropriate and what's right for their children," Millner said. "We always need to balance what we're doing. We certainly have to keep in mind parental choice."
But given the number of questions that have been raised about SAGE, and now that Utah schools have three years of experience administering the test, lawmakers want to "step back" and see if it's reaching its objective of bettering student outcomes, she said.
And the outcome of that conversation is far from decided.
"It's time to do a review," Millner said. "I don't think there's any predetermined place that we're going."
Contributing: Deanie Wimmer