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Utah's Board of Education has agreed to end SAGE testing in high school and review its use of the Common Core State Standards if lawmakers lend a hand.
The board regularly reviews and updates state standards in academic subjects, but members voted on Friday to accelerate the schedule for Utah's math and English standards which are based, in part, on the Common Core if lawmakers provide significant one-time funding to accomplish that task.
"We need the bandwidth because we are essentially taking this a little bit earlier but we don't want to stop what we're already doing," said David Thomas, vice chairman of the state school board.
And high school students would no longer take computer-based SAGE tests at the end of each year, instead taking the ACT as juniors.
That change is dependent on a series of statutory updates, as Utah law depends on SAGE scores for school grading, school turnaround programs and other accountability measures.
Friday's votes come in response to recent changes to federal law, which require annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school.
The board was also responding to encouragement from Gov. Gary Herbert, who visited Friday's meeting to urge action on both SAGE testing and Common Core, a series of grade-level benchmarks in math and English adopted by Utah and most states.
Herbert said Common Core has been a constant source of division and controversy since its adoption by the school board in 2010.
He said some of that controversy is due to inaccurate information, with opponents inaccurately describing Common Core as a federal program, but perception has led to the Common Core label being applied to "anything we don't like about public education."
"It doesn't matter who is right or wrong we're past that," Herbert said. "Somehow we've got to find a way to resolve this controversy and come together."
He said Utah deserves standards of the highest quality, whether that be a new series of benchmarks or a combination of the Common Core and locally developed standards.
But whether that process takes months or years, he said, the people of Utah need to feel like their voices are being heard by education leaders.
"The transition needs to start today," he said. "Let's transition to something better."
For years Herbert has been an implicit defender of the Common Core, commissioning third-party evaluations and an analysis by the Utah attorney general to confirm the efficacy and legality of the standards.
Herbert first floated the idea of ending SAGE and Common Core last week potentially in a special session of the Legislature leading to accusations that he had changed his stance to fend off a gubernatorial challenge for the Republican Party's nomination.
That criticism was echoed on Friday by school board member Leslie Castle, who reminded Herbert that she too is an elected official, albeit one without the roughly 75 percent voter support that Herbert enjoys, according to a recent poll.
She said the controversy surrounding Common Core and SAGE is not divisive. Instead, it is the "hum of democracy" that occurs when Utahns of different backgrounds and ideologies disagree on an issue.
"We have to remain steady and I know it takes a lot of courage," she said. "But if I can do it with my little margins that I live by compared to what you're polling at, I think we can all hold steady and continue on a course that has come together by a process that is absolutely legitimate."
And board member Joel Wright, who represents Utah County, said updating the state's math and English standards would do little to stem the Common Core controversy.
He said his constituents want the freedom to set policy at the school district level, and any mandate by the state board would be just as unpopular as the current practice.
"Even if we replace Common Core with something else, it will still be top-down," he said. "Salt Lake City is just as bad as Washington, D.C., and that's how my people feel right now."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, sponsored the bills that created Utah's school grading and school turnaround programs, both of which rely on SAGE scores.
He said both programs could potentially continue without high school students taking SAGE by using other metrics, like ACT scores, to determine failing and successful schools.
"We're going to ask our committees to take those questions and work on them over the next couple of interim meetings," he said.
He said controversy regarding Common Core, and a corresponding push for parents to opt out of SAGE testing, has created a need to examine Utah's use of standards and testing going forward.
"I think it's a good thing to look at," he said.
Board member Brittney Cummins said she supports a review of high school participation in SAGE, but suggested more conversation is needed before decisions are made.
The governor, lawmakers and board members talk about having the best schools in the country, she said, without explaining how that and other goals are to be measured.
"How do we know when we've gotten there?" she said. "How do we compare ourselves to other states in the nation?"
Before the board's vote, Utah Education Association executive director Lisa Nentl-Bloom urged the state school board to use caution while updating math and English standards.
She said students and educators should not be used as a "political football," and abrupt changes have the potential to cause greater harm than slower, incremental improvement.
"This is not the time to start over," she said. "This is the time to continue to work to create the best standards we can."