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Utah Will Ask for Test Participation Waiver From ESSA

Utah's state board of education last week voted to ask for a waiver from the Every Student Succeeds Act instead of complying with requirements that it sanction schools that don't test at least 95 percent of their students. 

Utah's statewide laws contradict the federal law's testing requirements, and state board members decided last week that they'd rather abide by the state's laws instead of the federal laws. Close to 6 percent of the state's students last year opted out of Utah's SAGE test. A state law protects any parent that would like to opt out of the test.  

In order to get a waiver from the law, Utah faces significant hurdles.  

Under ESSA, any state seeking a waiver must prove to the federal government that what it's proposing to do is just as, or more, effective than what the federal law requires. The politically thorny process can take months and pit local, state and federal officials against each other.  

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos rejected New York's waiver request to create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English. And DeVos' department is in a standoff with Colorado's state education department which wrote an ESSA plan that conflicts with the opt-out provision.  

In Utah, board members used its meeting last week as a sort of rally to support state law rather than federal law. 

"We are in control of our education system, and we are going to follow our state laws," said Alisa Ellis, the state board's vice-chairwoman, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The state receives close to $123 million from the federal government in order to assist its poor students. But board members last week encouraged state legislators to replenish schools with that money if the federal government rejects their waiver.  

An Education Week analysis of state plans shows that of the 34 states that turned in their ESSA plans last fall, only 11  technically punish schools if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in the state test.  

Proponents of the 95 percent participation rule argue that enough students have to participate in a state's proficiency exams in order for the state department to properly assess where schools need help.

Opponents to the rule argue that standardized tests are not a legitimate way to evaluate teachers and schools and that the pressures to perform well on the high-stakes tests have come to overwhelm the day-to-day goings on in schools.  

Several states' testing and accountability laws conflict with ESSA.  


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