03/18/2016

Utah seizes ESSA opportunity on testing, evaluation

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AFT-backed legislation to get state exam results out of teacher evaluation and to ease duplicative testing requirements rolled to decisive victories this month in Utah, a state that is using new powers under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to break free of rigid, unpopular No Child Left Behind mandates.

H.B. 201, which immediately removes Utah's high-stakes test from the teacher evaluation process, was approved unanimously by the Utah Senate and backed by a 60-4 vote in the House. H.B. 200 won by nearly as strong a margin; it gives high schools the option of not administering the state test to 11th-graders who take the ACT college admission exam. Both bills were sponsored by state Rep. Marie Poulson and quickly signed into law.

"We used ESSA as a base for getting these bills through," says Brad Asay, president of AFT Utah. There is widespread anger in the state about many policies tied to No Child Left Behind, the law that ESSA replaces. Particularly unpopular were an overreliance on standardized tests—as many as 1 in 5 students opted out of the state test in some Utah districts—and the use of the results of these tests in teacher evaluation, a use the tests weren't designed for.

Poulson is a former teacher who showed some humor as she introduced the bills, Asay remembers. "She said 'the evil federal government' can't control us on this one anymore. We have a choice here."

The state federation provided member testimony for both bills, lobbied hard to make the legislation a priority in the final flurry of the legislative session, and laid the groundwork for ESSA-related wins in future sessions. An AFT-supported proposal for a moratorium on high-stakes testing would give schools the time and breathing room they need for careful implementation. The proposal was referred to a legislative study session and is very likely to come up next year. "We're going to be pushing very hard" for support, Asay says.

[Mike Rose]