Students in Utah will still have to take their standardized tests this year — despite the pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oscar Gonzolez practices a standardized test with his third grade class at Elk Run Elementary school on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. The tests were canceled in spring 2020 because of the pandemic, but Utah anticipates giving the assessments in spring 2021.

The good news is that there’s one thing COVID-19 hasn’t caused Utah schools to cancel this year.

The bad news for students is that it’s standardized testing.

State education leaders announced Wednesday that despite the pandemic, they’re planning to go ahead with all assessments. That includes the annual RISE test, though there is currently no way for kids to take it online.

“Despite the risks, we believe there’s actually an increased need for us to be able to attain data that can inform and enlighten us about the impacts of this pandemic on student learning,” said Darin Nielsen, an assistant superintendent for the state, during a legislative education interim meeting.

The tests were canceled this past spring when schools in Utah first shut down in March because of the virus.

Nielsen said skipping this coming spring for a second year in a row would give teachers little way of assessing how well their students are doing. And it doesn’t appear that the U.S. Department of Education is going to grant another waiver.

The standardized RISE test is required by federal law in grades three through eight (as well as at least once in high school). And with some schools reopening in person across the country, the department has so far indicated the exams need to be conducted, Nielsen said.

There will be challenges in administering the tests, he acknowledged, especially as the pandemic surges in Utah.

When it’s feasible, the state plans to administer the tests that it can virtually. That includes the three annual assessments for preschoolers and kindergarteners, as well as reading-level tests for all elementary students and those who are learning English.

But with the RISE tests, that’s not possible. Nielsen said there are privacy concerns, as well as issues with preventing cheating that limit the state in administering it online.

The same issue exists for the ACT, which the state gives to all high school juniors.

It’s not clear yet, Nielsen noted, how the tests will be administered to the majority of students with many opting to do their studies online and Salt Lake City School District keeping its middle school and high school in remote instruction this coming semester. Students may be assigned in shifts to come in and take the exam. Anything the state does, he told lawmakers, will be “safe and practical,” and they’ll be watching for any equity issues that might block any students from accessing the assessments.

Additionally, parents can choose to opt their students out of the test, per Utah law. In recent years, more and more have been doing so. With that and the pandemic, Nielsen expects to have “less participation in testing than even in typical year” this spring.

In an attempt to provide some flexibility, Nielsen said the state will also expand the testing window so there’s more time for students to complete their exams.

And, to alleviate some stress from teachers about performance, the Utah Board of Education intends to lobby the Legislature so that the scores are again not used for any accountability measurements. Typically, the results from standardized tests are the basis for annual schools grades in Utah and to determine which classrooms are failing.

Nielsen said this year, the results may be lower because of the pandemic, and there’s nothing to compare them to for last spring because the tests were canceled.