Plan to give college readiness tests to Utah kids still possible
It seemed that everyone lawmakers and state education leaders supported a bill this winter that would have meant free college readiness tests, such as the ACT, for all Utah students.
So it came as a shock to many when that bill, SB10, died on the last night of the legislative session, when lawmakers ran out of time to pass it amid other debates.
State school board members, however, said Friday they think there may be a way to move the plan forward, at least in part, despite the Legislature's inaction. The board gave preliminary approval to a set of rules that could allow giving some of the tests to students.
Board members also decided to present the idea to the Education Interim Committee in May, partly in hopes that lawmakers will support another bill to put the tests in place. They would like lawmakers to pass that bill during a special legislative session or during the next regular session, in time for the tests to still be administered next school year.
"We're caught with legislation that didn't pass, that everyone thought would pass, and how to resolve it," said state school board member Kim Burningham.
SB10 would have eliminated the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT), which 10th graders have taken in the past, and it would have put $700,000 toward college-readiness tests. The exact tests had not yet been chosen, but a leading idea was to give all 11th graders the ACT, and to give all eighth graders and 10th graders the EXPLORE and PLAN tests, respectively.
The EXPLORE and PLAN are designed to help students gauge what they still need to work on to be ready for college.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously during the first week of the legislative session, but it then languished in the House for another six weeks.
Without that additional money, schools can't afford to give all those tests, said Judy Park, state associate superintendent, and if the board did nothing, schools could have to go back to giving the UBSCT.
Park told board members that by passing the new rules, they could potentially avoid a return to the UBSCT and instead use its funding to give the less-expensive PLAN to all 10th graders meeting the current law's requirement they take such a test.
Leftover UBSCT money could fund giving all but about 7,000 Utah juniors the ACT, at no cost to the students.
Over the past couple years, about half of all Utah juniors have been taking the ACT for free as part of a pilot program.
She said the tests could help students and parents significantly.
"Twelfth grade is a little late to discover you're not as prepared as you thought you were," Park said. "This is a way of regularly giving students and parents that information."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who co-chairs the Education Interim Committee, said it would be "ideal" if a bill could pass during a special session to allow schools to implement the three tests.
"The UBSCT hasn't been felt to have been a really robust measure of student accomplishment, and I think the PLAN is a better indicator and gives students better information," Stephenson said.
In lieu of a new bill, he said, the board's plan to use UBSCT money for the tests is one he supports in concept. He said the only question is whether they are allowed to do that legally, though he said his sense is they likely can.
He said there's bipartisan support for the idea of moving toward college-readiness tests.
Contacted Friday, bill sponsor Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said part of the reason SB10 didn't pass was due to trepidation over new Common Core academic standards. She said she and the House bill sponsor were waiting for a resolution, SCR13 which would have asked the state school board to reconsider its adoption of the standards to pass before bringing SB10 up for debate.
She said the intention was "to make sure we were not funding Common Core issues with SB10." She said there was worry that the tests might reflect the new standards.
That resolution, however, also failed. "It's very disappointing that both of those did not pass," Dayton said.
Current law requires 10th graders to earn a passing score on a competency test to graduate. Some also expressed concerns Friday about judging whether students have passed the PLAN, which gauges readiness.
But Park said talks with ACT, which administers the test, indicate that can be done. She noted that may not be needed if lawmakers are able to pass a bill before the tests are next given.