WOODS CROSS — Heather Gardner says her children were forced to take standardized tests, even after she provided the school with paperwork stating that she was exercising her right to have her children opt-out. The director of the school says teachers followed the law, but the law is confusing.

Gardner, of Woods Cross, does not want her children taking the assessment tests mandated by the state.

“I’m not opposed to testing — I’m a teacher,” said Gardner. “But I’m against the amount of time taken on testing, and the time lost from instruction.” 

Third graders are spending excessive amounts of time in computer labs learning to type, and taking practice tests, she said, and some kids are being rewarded with treats for doing well.

Gardner isn’t alone in removing her children from state testing. Two percent of SAGE tests were not taken during the 2013-14 school years, due to students opting out.

“I think the original concern came because of concerns and issues with Common Core, but what I’m hearing from the field is parents are wanting to opt out of other things, so there seems to be other issues,” said Judy Park, associate superintendent over student services and federal programs at the Utah State Office of Education.

Gardner said she’s also concerned about data collection on students, and says requests to have student data removed are denied. Sage tests are not research based, she said, and students are being used as guinea pigs. She’s also concerned about children developing testing anxiety.

“And I think it’s not for students — it’s to grade the teachers,” Gardner said. 

Legacy Preparatory Academy has ignored her wishes multiple times, she said.

“The first time this occurred was in April of 2014. On the SAGE testing day, my daughter was given a paper and pencil test that was labeled CRT, even though we handed in a very explicit form opting out,” Gardner said, adding that the law does not require students to be given an alternative paper and pencil test, such as a CRT (Criterion-referenced test), in place of Utah's computer-based SAGE (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) test.

“We immediately contacted the school and assessment director,” she said. “They apologized, and assured me it would never happen again.”

It did happen again, she claims, with her other children. On one occasion, Gardner said her son refused to take the alternative exam he was given, pretending to do the work and then turning in a blank paper.

“At this point we told them 'We are going to keep our kids home on SAGE testing days because it's obvious you can't follow the parental opt-out,' ” she said. “They started marking those as unexcused absences, so once again they were violating state Office of Education policy that says parents can keep kids home on SAGE days.”

The school recently administered the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) test, Gardner said, and her son was told he had to take it.

“We had sent a letter five days earlier saying we were opting out,” she said.

Karen Holman is director of Legacy Preparatory Academy's elementary program, splitting her time between the charter school's campuses in North Salt Lake and Woods Cross. She understands that statewide assessment tests are a hot topic.

“There are many parents that opt children out of SAGE. We do not have a problem with that, and we have honored that,” Holman said.

Students who opted out of last spring's SAGE assessments were not given an alternate test, according to Holman.

“The state does allow us to provide an alternative academic assignment at that time,” she said of periods when students are testing. “We have a teacher here who has prepared assignments for those students who are opting out.”

The assignment in question was not a CRT, Holman said, but a review of what was learned over the past year.

“The problem was that it was labeled 'CRT Language Arts,' ” she said, emphasizing again that it was not standardized testing.

Teachers also made up their own alternative assignments for students opting out of the fall interim SAGE tests as well, she said.

Holman said students who are pulled from school on SAGE testing days are marked absent, but it is an excused absence.

The school administered the DIBELS test in the fall, she said, and had to make their own decision about what to do with students while awaiting direction from the Utah State Office of Education.

“We took the conservative approach, and allowed them to opt out,” she said.

Holman said the school must follow the requirements laid out by state law.

The Office of Education issued a new interpretation of laws pertaining to opting-out of state testing, in a memo dated Monday, Feb. 2. 

“We have put out memos for policy on opting-out. This is the third iteration, and each memo changed a little bit based on questions and clarifications from the field,” Park said Thursday. “This is more clarifying than changing.”

Park said that if the opt out law is for state-mandated tests, then it only applies to those tests that are mandated by the state.

The new memo, reviewed and approved by Chris Lacombe, assistant attorney general in Utah, stated that because SAGE, ACT (American College Test), and NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) assessments are all required statewide, “these tests are subject to the opt-out provisions.”

SAGE Interim tests are not required by all local education agencies, and the agencies can get a waiver to substitute another test for DIBELS, therefore, according to the memo, parents do not have the option to opt out of these examinations.

Both Gardner and Holman say they have spoken with state Sen. Aaron Osmond, who sponsored SB 122 in 2014, focused on parental rights in public education.

“Basically, what Senator Osmond said is that SB 122 is being misinterpreted by the State Office of Education and by Chris Lacombe, and that he was going to change or amend SB 122 and he wanted me to testify,” said Gardner. “He basically reiterated what I already knew — that the school was breaking the law.”

Holman said she recently met with Osmond.

“I asked him specifically if DIBELS was included, and he said there is confusion,” she said. “He said parents have the right to opt out of state-mandated assessments.”

The opt-out does not apply if a school chooses to use an assessment for other purposes, Holman said.

“A lot of schools use DIBELS school-wide for their own benchmark testing, so it is no longer considered state-mandated and parents don't have the right to opt out of it,” she said. “Our school has used DIBELS from the year we opened, in 2006, even before the state came out with the current reading requirements they have.”

The state's opt-out policy, and the Feb. 2 memo, were a late addition to the Board of Education's agenda for its meeting Friday.

Board members had a lot of questions, said Emilie Wheeler, communications specialist for the board. Those questions covered SAGE Interim assessments, and some more obscure tests that are, technically, given statewide but aren’t necessarily a state-mandated test.

“The big question was with a test like DIBELS, which is a state test no doubt, however some don’t offer it,” said Wheeler. “Because it’s not offered statewide, is it still eligible by law to be opted out from?”

Board members decided that the Feb. 2 memo was released prematurely, and that more direction was necessary.

“They didn’t make any kind of motion to do anything,” said Wheeler. “It was decided that Superintendent (Brad) Smith would be working with staff, and the assistant attorney general assigned to the state board, to put together a new memo to make sure that it’s appropriate.”

Park recognizes that there are parents who have concerns and issues with assessment tests, but said tests do serve a useful purpose — giving educators information about student learning so they know how to adjust and improve their teaching.

“Certainly parents have rights, and they have a right to have their student not participate in certain things,” she said. “But it is difficult for educators who are focused around improving achievement, if they don't have the information that is helpful to them to guide their instruction.”

Holman said both sides of the argument about this law are doing what they feel is best.

“The real problem is a vaguely written bill that's been interpreted many different ways,” she said.

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or bwright@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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