SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's final plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act comes with one caveat — a request to opt out of student testing requirements.
Failing to comply with federal requirements could imperil $123 million in federal funds the state receives for programs that assist children experiencing homelessness, live in poverty or whose parents are migrant farmworkers, among other initiatives. The funding also supports professional development for teachers.
The plan is essentially an application for those federal funds. Utah submitted its final plan to the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday.
The waiver request could impact some or all of the funding, although top state officials say funds for program administration are more vulnerable than funding for the programs themselves should federal officials determine Utah is out of compliance.
Utah receives about $1 million in administrative funds each year.
Earlier this month, the Utah State Board of Education voted to seek a waiver from an ESSA provision that would require the state to count students who opt out of statewide testing as zero scores for school accountability purposes.
“We’re hopeful that the U.S. Department of Education will understand that in granting a waiver from this provision, Utah will be able to more accurately identify schools in need of improvement,” State School Board vice chairwoman Brittney Cummins said in a statement.
“We look forward to those conversations and anticipate discussions on how to ensure our accountability system is reliable and meaningful,” she said.
Counting scores of students who don't take the test as zeros would "further erode confidence in the validity of Utah’s accountability system," the State School Board statement issued on Feb. 1 said.
According to the waiver request, different groups of students opt out of testing at disproportionate rates. Students who are native English speakers and those who are non-low-income students choose to opt out of statewide assessments at higher rates than other student groups. On average, these students score proficient on statewide assessments in higher rates than many of the other student groups.
"Counting the scores of students who are non-low-income and non-minority is likely to interfere with identifying the lowest performing schools and student groups," the waiver request states.
State law permits parents, guardians 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.
Federal law requires a 95 percent participation rate.
The waiver request notes "Utah policymakers strongly support parental rights in directing and overseeing a student’s education. State law authorizes parents to excuse a student from taking a statewide assessment."
If granted, the waiver "would enable the state to maintain one coherent accountability system ... and avoid undermining the transparency of our accountability system, including the ability of policymakers, educators, parents, and students to make informed decisions," the request states.
Federal reviewers of an earlier version of Utah's plan raised concerns about state policies that make it difficult to discern teacher effectiveness. The policies may conflict with federal law, particularly at schools that serve high percentages of children from low-income families and receive Title I federal funds.
In Utah, school districts are not required to report educator evaluation ratings to the state.
According to the plan, very few Utah teachers - less than 1 percent - "have been deemed ineffective by the Utah evaluation system, and only seven of those are in Title I schools. Because there are no more than four ineffective teachers in any one district, Utah has determined that minority and low-income children are not served at disproportionate rates."
However, the State School Board is concerned that the low number "might indicate an unwillingness to identify ineffective teachers at the local level so (the Utah State Board of Education) will develop a plan for ongoing monitoring of effectiveness data and equitable distribution to ensure equitable access to effective teachers for all students," the plan states.
Presently, charter schools are not subject to state law on teacher evaluations. That may change, according to the final plan.Comment on this story
"(Utah State Board of Education) will consider requiring charter schools to report the numbers of ineffective teachers through the statewide (Comprehensive Administration of Credentials for Teachers in Utah Schools) system beginning in Spring 2018 to better analyze data for equitable distribution within and among the charter schools," the plan states.
Some members of the State School Board contend federal funding accounts for less than 7 percent of the state's overall funding for education so the state should not be boot-strapped to federal laws that conflict with state law, rules or priorities.
But other board members say the federal title programs assist some of Utah's most vulnerable children and help ensure equity. The attached federal funds enable schools to carry out those objectives.