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Skills test or sports?

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The State Board of Education is planning the state's first graduation test around student athletes' schedules.

State school bosses next week will ask the board to OK dates for the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test. Students must pass the test, first given in the 10th grade, in order to receive a high school diploma.

As part of planning for the five-hour exam, state school leaders consulted with the Utah High School Activities Association. Some 60 percent of Utah students participate in UHSAA-sanctioned activities, which includes sports, debate, drama and music.

The association schedules tournaments one year out. School leaders also looked to past calendars to come up with blocks of time through 2005 they hope won't conflict with activities, states a memo signed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing, a UHSAA executive committee member.

The reason: students would be around to take the test.

"I don't deny that there is great importance to the athletic events. What we're hoping is we can establish weeks in October and February . . . and then, hopefully, (UHSAA) will work around those dates," state testing chief Barbara Lawrence said Friday.

State school board members say they're working around the UHSAA because those events were scheduled first. Some events require facilities outside public schools, such as university courts, which are difficult to book.

"It has nothing to do with the priority of the sports. We didn't think it made good sense to try to (make) . . . sense of the statistics that may come out of tests taken by people who may be preoccupied by an activity," said board member Earl McCain. "But in years to come, if we can establish those dates well in advance, it's to be incumbent on the high school activities association to avoid the conflicts . . . . I'm not willing to bend."

UHSAA assistant director Dave Wilkey said the association will do its best to accommodate future test dates.

"We're very appreciative the state board is including us in the discussions. We want to support the academic mission — that's our mission," he said.

Yet state school board member David Moss acknowledges sports appear to be dictating when to introduce perhaps the most important test required of Utah students in state history.

"Should they be? Perhaps in time, they shouldn't," Moss said. "I don't think that's taking the importance of the testing away. I just think we all have to live under the same roof and work together and accommodate each other, particularly in the beginning while we all get on the same page."

Tournaments are set a year in advance, true. But the state board doesn't have to try to accommodate the association so many years down the road, trustee board member Lynn Davidson said.

"I think the state's trying to be too nice," Davidson said. "It's always been that the testing dates have taken precedence over the athletic events."

The test marks Utah's baby steps in the high-stakes, school accountability movement touted by President Bush.

It is part of the Legislature's plan to hold schools accountable for student achievement. The accountability plan, called the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, will be in full swing in 2004. It is a series of tests including writing exams, the Stanford Achievement Test, and core curriculum exams. Test results will be publicly reported.

Next year, students will take a statewide pilot test in mid-March instead of February, Lawrence said. The date is intended to avoid conflict with the Olympics.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com