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Utah parents scrutinizing high-stakes exam questions
Utah officials preparing adaptive exams that are unique to each student.

By Kristen Moulton The Salt Lake Tribune

Published November 4, 2013 9:45 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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They volunteered for it, but the week ahead will likely feel like a long one for 15 Utah parents.

The Parent Review Committee will sit at computers from 9 a.m. until 4 or 5 p.m. each day at the Utah Office of Education, reading exam questions and flagging any that raise cultural, ethical, moral or political concerns.

"We'll try to not make it replicate solitary confinement," joked Judy Park, deputy superintendent of Utah's schools. "But no doubt, it is probably going to be one of the longest weeks of their lives."

The Parent Review Committee was mandated by the Legislature to stand in for Utah's parents in vetting the questions students in third through 11th grades (and some 12th-graders) will be asked next spring on new computer adaptive tests.

The Utah Office of Education has a pool of 10,000 math, science and language arts questions based on the new — and controversial — Common Core standards being taught this year for the first time in all Utah public schools.

The exam questions come from a variety of sources: educators, the state office, previous tests and other states, Park said.

Such a deep pool is needed because in computer adaptive testing, each test is unique to the student taking it; questions depend on whether previous answers were right or wrong.

The complexity of the test is the same for everyone, but by honing in, the adaptive exam tells teachers what low-performing students don't know and what high-performing students do know, Park said.

The questions have already been through several committees of educators: those who wrote and compiled them; those who assessed whether the questions measure the standards; those who reviewed them for biases such as urban-rural, gender or ethnic; and those who checked the questions for grammar.

Now it's the parents' turn.

At least one, Alyson Williams, of Spanish Fork, is eager to start.

Williams has an education degree, but instead worked on the technology side of newspaper publishing and looks forward to spending each day scrutinizing questions. She has two children in elementary school and two who will follow.

Williams has been a critic of the Common Core, which she believes removes educational decisions from parents and puts more emphasis on data than on children.

Nonetheless, she said, she'll have an open mind.

"I'm doing it because I want to be as informed as I can be for my own children and hope that will benefit other parents," Williams said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, appointed Williams to the committee. By law, Senate and House leaders and the State Board of Education each appoint five.

Kaye Collins, another of the five appointees from Utah County, also has an education background. She has a master's degree and taught band for 16 years. She has two children still in school, a senior and a sophomore.

Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked Collins to serve.

Collins likes the new Common Core math curriculum, which seems more rigorous and challenging for her son.

As for the exam, she will look for unfair questions. "I really detest tests that are deliberately tricky," Collins said.

Though she does not expect to look at questions through a political lens, "I do not want to see a test that's skewed. It needs to be down the middle so all kids have a fair chance."

The week will shorten Collins' campaigning for re-election to the Lehi City Council, since she'll be holed up in a Salt Lake City office on Election Day and the day before.

Karen Conder, of Sandy, a parent of a senior and a sixth-grader, said she sees both sides of the arguments on the Common Core standards.

She is president of Parent Advocates for Special Education, a former elementary school teacher and a substitute teacher. "I don't have an agenda," she said.

Amy Farnsworth, of Vernal, said it's the same for her. "I'm not coming in with any biases."

A certified teacher, she has a tutoring business. "I'm hoping to do the best I can for Utah students and their families."

Lockhart appointed Conder and Farnsworth. Of the 15, only a handful, including Farnsworth, are from rural Utah. All but two of the 15 are women.

The remaining parents serving on the committee are:

LeAnn Wood, of Kaysville, and Louisa Walker, of Bountiful, appointed by the House speaker.

Jennie Earl, of Morgan; Christie Moore, of North Ogden; Sara Jane Weaver, of Sandy; and Kimberlie Kehrer, of Mapleton, all appointed by the Senate president.

Molly Foster, of Richfield; Alean Hunt, of Providence; Scott Johnson, of Highland; Christine Ruiz, of West Haven; and Brad Caldwell, of Clearfield, all appointed by the State Board of Education.

The 15 will be required to sign a confidentiality agreement that prohibits them from discussing the test questions outside the room.

Lawmakers have criticized that, saying a "gag order" undermines the point of having parents review the questions. They ought to be able to share any concerns — though not specific test questions — with the public, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said in an Administrative Rules Committee last month.

To try to assuage lawmakers, the Office of Education invited a handful of legislators to meet with the Parent Review Committee and several board members Friday morning. All will be required to sign the confidentiality agreement, Park said.

"The whole point was for parents to be able to look at it and identify concerns," she said. "The point was never for them to go out and share with the world what the test questions are. That's just not possible in high-stakes tests where you need reliable results."

kmoulton@sltrib.comTwitter: @KristenMoulton —

Common Core: Want to know more?

TribTalk moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce recently discussed the Common Core with State Board of Education Chairwoman Debra Roberts, Dalane England of the Utah Eagle Forum and Tribune education reporter Lisa Schencker. Find the video chat at http://bit.ly/1a2wqMp.



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