New school testing plan is approved

Published September 27, 2008 1:09 am
Lawmakers OK the pilot program in some districts
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As many as five school districts and five charter schools could soon dramatically change the way they test students.

Lawmakers passed a bill during their special session Friday to allow the Utah Board of Education to exempt some school districts and charter schools from state testing requirements so they can pilot a new testing system. The pilots, if successful, could eventually lead to statewide changes.

"It's light years ahead of what we currently have, but we don't want to jump to the whole state and all districts with it until we have tested it," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the bill's sponsor. Under the bill, the state school board would have to recommend to lawmakers by November 2009 whether to go to a new testing system statewide or stick with the current system, based on the pilots' success.

Now, the state needs permission from the U.S. Department of Education to exempt the pilot schools from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. If the federal government doesn't approve the exemptions, the pilot districts might have to give both the old and new tests so Utah schools don't risk losing federal funding.

If the federal government agrees to the pilots, those schools would no longer have to give Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs) in the spring, or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT), which students take before graduation. Instead they would give computer adaptive tests and the ACT, among others. Computer adaptive tests adjust to students' skill levels as they take them.

Advocates of the changes say they will provide more useful data to teachers, students and parents because computer adaptive tests show children's strengths and weaknesses and provide immediate results. Critics point out that students could actually spend more time testing than they do now. Leaders of the Jordan and Salt Lake City school districts have criticized the idea of making the changes statewide, saying, among other things, that questions remain about computer-adaptive testing.

The state school board has already given permission to the Juab and Sevier school districts to pilot the program. The Logan School District will also try the program but also give the old tests for comparison.

The state school board can choose another two urban school districts and five charters to participate as well. State Superintendent Patti Harrington said the new east Jordan district has already expressed an interest.

The bill passed the Senate 22-5 and the House 69-0. Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, expressed concern about passing such a bill in a rushed special session when lawmakers didn't have much time to consider it. Stephenson, however, said the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Assessment has already been studying the changes for months and held public meetings across the state. He said holding off until the general session in January could mean two sets of tests for Juab and Sevier students.

"That would be an onerous burden on the students and diminish instructional time," Stephenson said.

The Utah State Office of Education is giving the three districts that have already agreed to try the changes about $350,000 to run the new tests, Harrington said. Her office estimated earlier this year that putting the system into effect statewide would cost more than $60 million. The panel had hoped to recommend a new statewide system to the governor this year but instead recommended just the pilots in light of state budget cuts and to have more time to study the pilots' results.

The pilots must end before July 1, 2010, according to the bill.


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