SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson met with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in Washington Monday to discuss Utah's proposed waiver from some student testing requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
On Feb. 14, Utah submitted its plan to the U.S. Department of Education on how it would comply with the federal program. Utah's plan came with a request for a federal waiver from a provision that require states to count students who opt out of statewide testing as zero scores for school accountability purposes.
The meetings with DeVos and other Department of Education officials "went very well," Herbert said.
“They are going to work through this with us,” the governor said. “I am confident we can get this resolved.”
The waiver request could impact some or all of the funding Utah receives for federal title programs, some $123 million a year. However, education officials say funds for program administration are more vulnerable than funding for the programs themselves should federal officials determine Utah is out of compliance. The state receives about $1 million in federal administrative funds a year.
The waiver request notes that "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."
Department of Education officials "understand the uniqueness of the law that allows students to opt out of testing," Herbert said, which should bode well for a resolution.
According to the waiver request, different groups of Utah students opt out of year-end testing at disproportionate rates.
For example, students who are native English speakers and those who are not low-income tend 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.9 comments on this story
Utah law permits parents, guardians or students over the age of 18 to request to be excused from tests administered statewide. In recent years, growing numbers have opted out of testing.
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.
CONTRIBUTING: Amy Joi O'Donoghue