Year-end testing at Utah schools suspended during coronavirus outbreak

(Rick Bowmer | AP) English teacher Valerie Gates, left, distributes a computer to help with remote learning, to West Hight School junior Monserrat Roque at West High School on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah students in public elementary, middle and high schools will not take year-end standardized tests this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered schools for at least two weeks, the state board of education decided Thursday.

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Utah students won’t take standardized tests this spring — and they might not be able to return and finish the school year in their classrooms as the coronavirus continues to spread.

The state Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to cancel the annual exams, calling it “the responsible way” to move forward as health officials say Utah is still in the early stages of the pandemic here.

“I think this is key,” said board member Jennie Earl, who represents Morgan County. “It will help clear up some of the stress that teachers and administrators are feeling.”

It’s a big development that signals state education leaders are looking beyond the current two-week “soft closure” of schools and anticipating a longer dismissal. For now, students have shifted to learning either online or through printed packets. That decision is expected to be reevaluated by March 27.

The year-end tests, though, typically take place between mid-March and May.

“It’s just becoming more likely that our students will not be able to gather and participate in these assessments,” acknowledged State Assistant Superintendent Darin Nielsen during a virtual meeting of the board.

Cases of the virus in Utah have increased to 78, including at least four children. And state officials are encouraging people to stay home and avoid large groups to slow the spread. As part of that effort, families can now pick up both breakfast and lunch from school at the same time instead of making two trips each day — one of a handful of other waivers also announced by the board Thursday, along with the exam cancellation.

The primary thought behind suspending the tests, Nielsen added, is to remove “an unnecessary distraction” from what’s already a stressful situation for many students. It would also be impossible, he added, for the state to administer the exams remotely if kids do end up having to stay at home through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The end-of-year assessments are required by federal law in grades three through eight (as well as at least once in high school). So to move forward with lifting the mandate, the board will have to seek waivers from the U.S. Department of Education. Already, 36 other states are doing the same.

It will also need to request an exemption from the state Legislature.

The scores from standardized tests are used as the basis for annual schools grades in Utah and to determine which classrooms are failing. It’s not clear yet how — or if — those will be calculated for this year. Based on testing malfunctions, lawmakers already voted this session to suspend grades only for the 2018-2019 school year.

In addition to testing, the Board of Education announced several other state and federal waivers for schools. Under a significant one, students and their families in Utah can now pick up both breakfast and lunch each day in one trip. With the coronavirus restrictions, schools have had to shift to serving grab-and-go meals. Previously, the requirement was that the two meals had to be separated.

Additionally, any children getting SNAP benefits (under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) had to be physically present — their parents could not pick up food on their behalf. That has been lifted, as well.

The state also will not require any days of missed instruction to be made up this year. That includes the days that teachers used to prepare to move classes online. Typically, school districts are required to be in session for 180 days.

And schools won’t be required to conduct a third reading assessment, typically done between April and June, for first through third grades.

The waivers, said board chairman Mark Huntsman, are intended to give schools some flexibility amid the challenges.

“This is likely just the beginning,” he added, noting it’s still possible that schools may have to close entirely during the pandemic. “We’ll continue actively monitoring and responding to this situation as it evolves.”

For now, the actions will be in place through June 30, the end of the academic year. And schools will continue to receive funding through then.