SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board's internal auditors plan to conduct an audit or survey to determine why growing numbers of Utah schoolchildren have opted out of standardized testing in recent years.
The proposal is not without controversy.
While debating the proposal Thursday, some board members said an audit would infringe on parental rights. Others argued the findings could reveal problems with assessments that could be addressed to encourage higher participation rates.
State law allows parents to opt their students out of statewide tests. In 2017, 5.9 percent of students elected not to take them, up from 3.1 percent in 2015. Thirteen percent of charter school students opted out in 2017.
The proposed audit would review school district and charter school opt-out rates and gather information about why parents and guardians elect not to have their children take part in the state testing program.
Board member Spencer Stokes urged state education administrators to tread carefully when asking parents why they allow their children to opt out of testing.
"I think this has the potential of being a ginormous PR nightmare," Stokes said.
In most cases, the board authorizes the scope of audits it wants its internal auditors to conduct. In this case, Stokes proposed — and the board agreed — that auditors could not proceed into the field until the state school board approved the methodology of the audit.
According to board documents, the audit is expected to take six to seven months to complete and require the efforts of up to three audit staff members.
Aside from methodology, board member Michelle Boulter said she objects to the notion of "auditing parents."
State law permits parents to opt out their students, she said. "They don't have to answer to us why they're exercising their parental rights."
But others, like board member Kathleen Riebe, said the audit would provide information needed to improve state testing and assessment procedures.
Auditors might learn that some parents of children with disabilities opt out because they do not believe that current accommodations give them a fair chance of performing as well as possible or it takes too long to take the tests.
If parents don't want to participate in auditors' surveys or interviews, they too have the option of opting out, Riebe said.
The board voted to refer the proposed audit to its audit committee, which is a subcommittee of board members. That committee will report on the audit or survey's methodology and the board will determine if auditors can proceed.
Utah's opt-out rate was a sticking point in obtaining the federal government's approval of the state's Every Student Succeeds Act plan, which is essentially an application for federal funding. Federal law requires a 95 percent participation rate.