Utah lawmaker says kids see end-of-year exams as ‘dumb tests that don’t matter.' His bill to change that has passed the House.

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Fifth- and sixth-graders take math tests at Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake in this August 2017 file photo.

No matter how many questions students answer correctly on their end-of-year tests, their scores won’t affect their class grades.

For Rep. Mike Winder, that’s a problem: The setup causes many to not care how well they do and others to not try at all, he said. Even his own kids, he added, have called them “dumb tests that don’t matter.”

So Winder, R-West Valley City, proposed HB118 that would incentivize kids to do well by giving them credit that can boost their grades in a class. And it passed in the House on Tuesday with a 58-14 vote.

“Right now, there’s a lot of noise in the data from students not trying their best,” he said. “And we’re spending an awful lot of money on [it].”

The bill amends state law, which prohibits schools from encouraging participation on the year-end tests by providing rewards. Under this measure, teachers still could not punish those who do poorly or choose to opt out, but they could give extra credit to those with high scores.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, spoke in favor of the measure and said it struck the right balance of motivating students to take the tests seriously while safeguarding parental rights.

“I think it will help improve the outcome of our state testing,” she said.

Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, added that she felt is was “harmless” for students who still wanted to opt-out.

But those opposed to the measure say it unfairly punishes those families. Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, who voted against it, said the bill would particularly harm students who opt out because of test anxiety or other disadvantages; they wouldn’t have the same opportunities to improve their grades.

What about the students who “throw up in a test longer than 90 minutes?” he asked, noting it’s not their fault.

Winder responded that the intent is only to help students who do well and to give the state more accurate scores to look at when reviewing schools. The measure now goes to the Senate.

The number of parents excusing their children in Utah from year-end exams has steadily increased in recent years. In 2017, for instance, 5.9 percent of students statewide opted out. That put the state below the required 95 percent minimum participation rate required by the federal government, and it had to count students who opted out as participating and failing.

Feb. 4: Utah teachers say students draw butterflies and write in German on standardized tests because scores don’t affect their grades. A new bill aims to change that.

One teacher said her students don’t take their end-of-year tests seriously and draw butterflies with the multiple choice bubbles. Another educator noted that some of his kids have gotten the worst score they could — on purpose. A school board member explained that a few of the smarter ones will write their responses in German as a joke.

The reason: No matter how many questions students get right, their scores don’t affect their grades. So many don’t care and others don’t try.

“What we need is some way to incentivize doing well on these tests,” said McKay Jensen, president-elect of the Utah School Boards Association.

Ainge and a handful of educators and principals shared their stories, experiences and challenges with standardized testing on Monday before the House Education Committee. Most spoke in support of a bill that, if passed, will give credit to students who get strong test scores, and that credit can improve their grades in a class.

The measure, HB118, is expected to be among the most divisive education bills this session. Those in favor say it gives schools a chance to encourage test participation and boost their overall marks. Those against say it would unfairly punish families who choose to opt their kids out of the test.

It got initial approval in committee — with two representatives opposed — and will now go to the full House for a vote.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said his proposal is meant to walk a fine line. He doesn’t want to step on parental rights, so he’s not asking that all students be required to take the year-end exams. He doesn’t want students who take the test and do poorly to be punished, so there’s no penalty for bad scores.

But he does want more students to take the assessment and more students to do better, so he hopes the incentive of extra credit or a boosted grade will push them to do so.

“We want to have them try and have it mean something,” Winder said. “The bill is specific in that it’s only for positive academic rewards. It’s legalizing the carrots while still prohibiting the sticks.”

The number of parents excusing their children from standardized tests, which is allowed in Utah, has steadily increased. In 2017, at the latest peak, 5.9 percent of students statewide opted out. That put the state below the required 95 percent minimum participation rate required by the federal government, and it had to count students who opted-out as failing to receive funding.

Winder said those failing scores and students purposely not doing well “create noise” in the state’s data and waste taxpayer dollars, which go toward the tests. But currently, teachers are not allowed to use the scores in any part of their grading.

“If you can’t measure, you can’t manage,” he said. “Let’s empower the teacher to authorize some extra credit or maybe drop a test [a student] did poorly on.”

Many members of the committee, most former teachers, said they appreciated the measure after years of trying to convince their students that it matters.

“It was such a fight to get them engaged in the test because they didn’t see any reason for it,” said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights.

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said when she would pass out the tests or administer them on computers, her students used to say, “Really?” and “Why do I have to do this?”

The bill also has support from the Utah Education Association — which generally opposes standardized testing as a whole — the Utah branch of the American Federation of Teachers and the Utah School Boards Association. Jensen, the president-elect, said he wants a way “to hold our students accountable.”

LeAnn Wood, the education commissioner for the Utah PTA, said currently students see little “tangible benefit” from taking the tests. But she has her kids do them, and last year her son’s teacher was able to find an issue with his reading based on his score and help him improve.

“I’m grateful that as a parent, who as my children say ‘make them take the test,’ this [bill] would make them try a little harder,” she said.

The opposing committee members — Reps. Val Peterson and Jefferson Moss — expressed concerns that extra credit can be defined differently by teacher and school. The group Utahns Against Common Core, which has led efforts to oppose previous attempts to require or incentivize testing, has said the tests already don’t measure knowledge and cause some students a lot of anxiety.

Pamela Budge, a member of the group with kids in public school in Cache County, said HB 118 would “pit schools and teachers against students and parents.”

“This bill gives an unfair advantage to students who take the tests and those who opt-out will likely see their grades suffer as a result,” she added.

Already, though, schools with high numbers of students who skip the assessments — including many charter schools and wealthy districts, such as Park City — have seen large dip in their performance ratings, which are based on the scores. That means they could lose funding and potentially be forced to close.