A debate over standardized testing Thursday highlighted the frustrations members of the Utah Board of Education feel toward SAGE, the computer-based exam taken by public school students each year. 

Board members searched for justifications to abandon the test in grades 9 and 10 — including reading from a non-binding legislative resolution on excessive testing — but were told any deviation would violate state law.

“We don‘t have an option of not testing,” said Laura Belnap, chairwoman of the board’s Standards and Assessment Committee. “That would be a legislative change.”

The state school board signaled last year its intention to move away from SAGE testing for high school grades in lieu of a suite of exams administered by ACT. 

Lawmakers approved a bill allowing high school juniors to take only the ACT, but school board staff alerted board members that adopting pre-ACT tests in grades 9 and 10 would conflict with Utah’s standards, school accountability programs and procurement laws that require a competitive bid process.

Committee members voted 3-1 to continue high school SAGE testing next spring while the board explores replacements for Utah’s testing system.

“Aye, begrudgingly,” board member Terryl Warner said while casting her vote Thursday.

The return to the status quo rankled representatives of Utah’s school districts and charter schools, who said administrators had followed the board’s cues by investing resources to prepare for ACT testing.

Federal law requires states to conduct annual testing in grades three through eight and at least once in high school — typically during a student’s junior year.

But Utah lawmakers added to those requirements, creating accountability programs, like grading each school, that rely on annual test scores.

Failing to offer a statewide test in grades 9 and 10 — or using a noncompliant test as a one-year stop gap — would disrupt school grading and put turnaround schools at risk of closure or other sanctions due to the law’s requirements for annual improvement.

“The reality is, we‘ve got to do what’s best for the majority of our students,” school board Chairman Mark Huntsman said. “Our safest bet for our most at-risk, which is turnaround schools, is hold the course with SAGE.”

Utah’s testing landscape is complicated further by laws intended to preserve parental rights. Students are able to opt-out of statewide testing, and teachers are prohibited from including these test scores in the calculations of a course grade or offering incentives to encourage test participation.

Those provisions have drawn the ire of educators, who say their performance is judged by data from a test that students increasingly don’t take seriously, or don’t take at all.

"Everything we do in the classroom should be a component of the final grade," school board member Spencer Stokes said. "It’s not right for a teacher to have a bunch of kids that are opting-out of testing because they know it doesn’t count.”

Jennifer Graviet, a board member and teacher, said SAGE testing produces a wealth of valuable information on student progress, so long as students opt-in and attempt to answer questions correctly.

She said teachers will often offer to excuse students from a final course exam if they score proficiently on SAGE. But it’s unclear if that type of incentive violates school board policies that prohibit rewards for test-takers.

“That‘s a really gray area that teachers are craving clarification on,” Graviet said.

The committee appeared to reach a consensus on new guidelines that would instruct teachers to keep students in the testing area regardless of whether they opted in or opted out. For students excused from the test, an alternate paper-and-pencil test or other assignment could be given.

Committee members voted in favor of asking Utah Board of Education staff to begin drafting new rules and guidelines on testing.