Utah parents, teachers say standardized testing bill a mistake

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Some Utah teachers and parents have expressed opposition to HB118 is because they do not believe standardized testing scores can replace schoolwork. (AP Photo)

Some Utah parents and teachers have expressed concerns that HB118, a bill proposing to incentivize standardized testing, could have adverse effects on school children. The bill passed the Senate second reading Feb. 27 and has already gone through the House.

HB118 would make it legal for teachers to provide academic awards for students who excel on standardized assessments to encourage students to do their best on the tests. Teachers wouldn’t be allowed to punish any students who opt out or test poorly.

Wendy Hart, a former member of the Alpine School District Board of Education who opposes HB118, wrote in a blog post that rewarding one group of students “inherently punishes” the others.

Hart wrote that when she was a school board member, she received messages from parents concerned about the treatment of their opted-out children during testing time.

“Some schools have used participation points to circumvent the ‘course credit’ requirement or have required students to take tests that they are promised are ‘harder and more time consuming,’” Hart wrote. “Some other requirements were pizza parties, ice cream parties, not having to take the final if you simply take the test.”

Some students don’t have to take the test because of test anxiety or other reasons. According to former UVU, high school and elementary school teacher and mom Christel Swasey, many of these kids have no choice in whether they opt out. She said she worries about their feelings when teachers exclude them from rewards.

“Some schools are saying, ‘OK, if you opt out, you have to go sit in the hall.’ Or, ‘If you opt out, you can’t have the pizza party with the rest of the class,’” Swasey said. “For little kids, that’s really, really mean.”

Swasey said HB118 would make these situations legal.

“Incentivizing can mean positive or negative things,” Swasey said, who mentioned she wants standardized testing to remain neutral. “And it doesn’t matter really if you’re saying, ‘We’re just rewarding the kids that do take the test,’ well, that’s still punishing the kids that don’t take the test.”

HB118 would allow teachers to supplement poor class grades with positive standardized test scores — for example, a teacher could replace a child’s low midterm score with points from proficient standardized testing. Swasey said she is also concerned standardized tests cannot replace coursework as a way to demonstrate a child’s learning.

“A lot of people don’t understand that this is not like a normal test where kids and teachers get to look at the answers afterwards,” Swasey said. “Teachers can never lay eyes on the test ever, not even after the test. Parents can never lay eyes on the test. Students never get to lay eyes on the test except for when they’re actually taking the test.”

Swasey has taught English at the high school and college levels and said she does not believe standardized testing can be considered “a legitimate replacement for real education.” For her students who are reading novels and writing research papers, Swasey said no standardized test can replace the writing, editing and citations that go into their assignments. 

According to Swasey, a misconception is that the state will lose federal money if a growing number of students opt out of taking the tests, but Alisa Ellis of the State Board of Education wrote in a Facebook post this is false, based on information she gained from an October Utah School Board Association meeting. According to Ellis, school achievement calculations are affected by opt-outs, but no federal funding is tied to the calculations.

“As our opt-out rate increases above the 95 percent participation threshold, the federal government requires that we change our calculation,” Ellis wrote, referring to the achievement indicator calculations which are based on schools’ standardized test participation. “In our board meeting the Superintendent estimates about five schools would be affected in the state.”

The calculation change would only occur if any of the lowest 5 percent performing schools in the state had more than 5 percent of students opt out.

“It’s also important to note that we aren’t even required to send the calculations to the federal government,” Ellis wrote. “We simply have to run a report and post it for public consumption.”

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