Tribune editorial: On school testing, Utah must make up its mind

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oscar Gonzolez practices the SAGE test with his 3rd grade class, at Elk Run Elementary school, Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

Utah's love-hate relationship with standardized testing took another sharp turn last week with news that students who opt out of testing will be counted as failing the tests.

That decision from the Utah Board of Education comes after the U.S. Department of Education refused Utah’s request to, in essence, pretend the students who opted out didn’t exist. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that at least 95 percent of students participate in testing, but more than 5 percent of Utah students opt out. (Or, more accurately, their parents opt them out.) Not even the Secretary Betsy DeVos Education Department was willing to let Utah just ignore the students who opt out, so now the state will have to count them as failing participants, even though they didn’t participate.

As a result, the statewide grading system – in which schools are given a grade based on student test scores – could see a grade slump. Schools that have had relatively high rates of opt-outs — particularly charter schools — will see their grades drop like the lunch line on tuna surprise day. Already a questionable tool, the school grades now will be even more meaningless.

How did we get to this point? It comes down to Utah's conflicting attitudes about parental control and school accountability.

On the one side, there is the libertarian view that parents should control their children's educations. If parents don't want their children tested, they shouldn't be.

On the other side is the demand for a feedback loop in public education. Without some consistent assessment of student performance (all students), it's hard to know if schools are doing the job.

Rather than make a hard choice, Utah split the baby. We have bowed to those parental-rights instincts, giving parents a broad authority to skip the tests, no explanation needed. At the same time, we continue to disseminate school grades as a legitimate measure of performance. They aren't.

Both sides need to give. We (wisely) already have truancy laws to make sure children get educated, and even homeschooling parents have to show proof of complying. Reasonable people can argue all day about what constitutes a legitimate assessment of student performance, but the assessments must happen. Letting parents opt out of one test is a pointless demonstration of parental control.

At the same time, those demanding school accountability need to move past traditional testing. We live in the age of data. We don’t need one year-end test to know how much each student has learned. We have every homework assignment, every quiz, every midterm test, every graded paper to assess. Not just a snapshot at the end of the year but a real-time trajectory of progress over the school year.

Assessments based on that longitudinal data will be far superior to one-time shots at the end of the year. Then parents, teachers, administrators and the public will have more faith in their schools.

And no one can opt out.