SALT LAKE CITY — Growing rates of Utah students opting out of standardized tests could conceivably cost Utah millions in federal education funds.
Assessment participation rates are one issue federal education officials raised in the preliminary review of Utah's plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The federal standard is 95 percent participation in math and English assessments.
State law permits parents, or students over the age of 18, to request to be excused from tests administered statewide.
In 2017, 5.9 percent of eligible students opted out of statewide testing, up from 3.1 percent in 2015. The opt-out rate among charter schools was 13 percent in 2017 and averages about 36 percent among virtual schools, according to state data.
State policies that make it difficult to discern teacher effectiveness — particularly at schools that serve high percentages of children from low-income families and receive Title I federal funds — are also a compliance concern, according to federal reviewers.
In Utah, school districts are not required to report educator evaluation ratings to the state. Moreover, charter schools are not subject to state law on teacher evaluations.
Next month, state education leaders will ask the Utah State Board of Education for possible policy changes to buttress the final state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by Feb. 14.
“We really need your eyes on these items, your best thinking, and next month we’ll need your direction,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson told board members recently.
Utah submitted its plan to the U.S. Department of Education in September and received feedback in mid-December, which included requests for supplemental information, to reorganize sections of the plan and changes that may require the State School Board to adjust policies, according to Patty Norman, deputy state superintendent.
Another option would be to ask for a waiver of some of the act's requirements instead of establishing policies or programs simply to comply with the federal acts.
"That seems more of a poke in the eye at them than outright asking them for a waiver," said board member Spencer Stokes.
Others, like board member Lisa Cummins, said the state should dispense with federal education requirements and funding and ask the Utah Legislature to appropriate more money to Utah schools to make up for federal funds.
"We don’t need to play 'Mother may I' with the federal government telling us what to do, when to jump or how high or lose state sovereignty on top of that, right?" Cummins said.1 comment on this story
The state receives about $123 million in federal title funds annually. Typically, funds given to states to administer programs are more vulnerable than the money for programs should federal officials determine states are out of compliance with federal regulation, state officials said. Utah currently receives about $1 million in administrative funds each year.
Board Chairman Mark Huntsman said he believes the State School Board needs to carefully consider the impact of federal funds on many Utah schools.
"If we're going to put something at risk, if this board is going to put something at risk, we'd better have a really good contingency plan on how we're going to address the consequences of that instead of bluffing or being bold and not have that fear," Huntsman said.