In 2015, Utah’s legislature took a strong stand in favor of families and against federal coercion in education. With the passage that year of Senate Bill 204, legislators protected families who choose to opt out of high-stakes statewide tests used for federal enforcement by prohibiting schools and teachers from using incentives for taking the test.
But this year, the legislature is considering backing down on its defense of families and installing measures to coerce higher test participation to please the federal government.
House Bill 118, Incentives for Statewide Assessment Performance, would erase years of parent advocacy regarding ethical testing practices by allowing teachers to assign course credit or other academic awards for the nationally aligned RISE/ASPIRE (formerly SAGE) test. In addition to making it more difficult for families to opt out of state testing due to social pressure, passage of HB 118 would be a statement of record that either Utah has already adopted a national curriculum, or it favors policy pushing the state in that direction.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Education told the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) that in spite of state law protecting families’ rights to opt out—which has led to a testing participation rate of about 94 percent—it would be required to hold to “the 95 percent rule,” a federal demand that 95 percent of all students and all student subgroups (English language learners, special education, etc.) must take the test or the state risks losing funding.
While seeking approval from the federal government for its state education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Utah’s board of education attempted twice to formally protect parental rights and honor the state’s law. But U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rejected those requests, insisting that Utah do as the federal government sees best for it.
Despite this history, and even though the bill’s proponents have cited a need to push testing rates to 95 percent—inadvertently admitting, despite assertions to the contrary, that the intent is to coerce more families to have their children take the test—this threat itself is empty.
ESSA, which established the 95 percent rule, also contains a provision stating that nothing in the statute preempts state law regarding opt outs. This reality was confirmed last October in a Utah State Board of Education meeting where board member Alisa Ellis asked whether Utah is at risk for losing federal money if our testing opt-out numbers continue to climb. Utah School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson’s chief of staff said, “No.”
HB 118 has been sold in the legislature as “a carrot, not a stick” that will enable teachers to motivate students to do well on the test without precluding parents’ rights to opt their children out. But rewarding kids who take state tests with extra credit or the choice to drop a low test score or avoid a research paper implicitly penalizes the kids whose parents opt them out. It seems a lot like the way the federal government uses federal dollars as a “carrot” to “motivate” states to “improve.”
This assertion also shows unawareness of the bullying that has already occurred around the state in the form of “incentives,” despite the current law that prohibits such practices. Students who opt out of state tests have reported being assigned onerous or time-consuming projects for their families’ choice. A quiet, introverted girl was threatened with an oral report if she didn’t take the test. A third grader was sent to the principal’s office while his classmates took the test. Other elementary students have been forced to sit out of parties or miss out on candy awarded to those who took the test.
High school students have been threatened with exclusion from Advanced Placement and honors classes. They have been given the incentive to skip the class final simply for taking the SAGE/RISE test, whether or not they do well on it. Other students have reported that their teachers publicly deride those who don’t take the test, often making derogatory statements about the parents of such students.
As concerns about the mental health of young people rise, high-stakes tests are regularly cited as influential negative factors. The mental health of special-needs children is also jeopardized by the state tests, as special-needs children are forced under Common Core to test at their age level instead of their developmental level. Parents and teachers are alarmed at the demoralizing effects of, for example, requiring a sixth-grade special-needs student who reads on a third-grade level to take a test he can’t possibly comprehend.
Protecting a family’s ability to opt out a child with special needs or one who responds with anxiety or depression to such tests requires protecting children from the bullying implicit in offering incentives for those tests.
Schools have shown time and again that they want a stick to coerce compliance. It’s almost understandable when one considers the federal and state pressure put on schools and teachers to perform on these high-stakes tests, which after almost six years of use still haven’t been validated. But passing federal and state bullying on to students and parents is wrong.
HB 118 would remove the protection of the law against these abusive practices. It is supported by organizations and individuals that should be protecting students from such bullying and defending Utah’s authority make its own decisions. Utah legislators should reject HB 118. They should stand by their history of protecting families and state sovereignty.