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When Emmalee Gardner's teacher pulled her out of class earlier this month to take a reading test, the 9-year-old Legacy Preparatory Academy student balked.
Her mother didn't want her to take the test, Emmalee said, and had opted Emmalee and her siblings out under state law.
But her teacher was undetered, and Emmalee was taken to a separate room to complete the DIBELS test, which measures grade-level reading ability.
"I felt scared of my teacher after she forced me to take the test," Emmalee told members of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. "I never wanted to go back to my school, so I didn't."
Emmalee read from a prepared statement, urging lawmakers to approve Senate Bill 204, which clarifies a parent's right to opt their children out of state- and federally mandated testing.
She said she now attends a private school, where testing laws don't apply.
"I think it's unacceptable that children are being forced to take a test," she said. "You are taking away my freedom of speech."
Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis said that because public education is paid for by taxpayers, the public has a legitimate interest in reviewing statewide test results.
"We respect parental rights, but we also have a right to know that our taxpayer money is going to make sure the kids are really getting an education," he said.
Last year, amid backlash against the state's new SAGE computer adaptive testing system, lawmakers passed a so-called "Parents' Bill of Rights," which stated that parents could excuse their children from participating in statewide testing.
But South Jordan Republican Sen. Aaron Osmond, who sponsored last year's bill and SB204, said that the Bill of Rights' vagueness had led to varied interpretations at the school and district level.
In some cases, parents were being asked to meet with school administrators and sign official district opt-out forms each year. And confusion over which tests were included in the opt-out provision had led to children like Emmalee Gardner being encouraged to take tests against their parents' wishes.
Osmond said his motivation behind SB204 was not to create an excessively prescriptive "Law of Moses," but to provide clarity and balance between the rights of parents and the needs of the public education system.
"Every district has come up with their own policies and proceedures," Osmond said.
Under the bill, a written notice from a parent would permanently exuse a student from all mid-year and end-of-level tests that are developed for or provided by the state, or that are required under state and federal law.
The bill would also prohibit schools from requiring parents to meet with educators as a condition of opting out their students.
Osmond said there is a concern among educators that parents may not fully understand the issues surrounding testing. But he said parents ultimately hold the "trump card" and should not be coerced into testing.
"They don't have to have a meeting with the district, and they don't have to use a district form to opt out," he said.
While testing has become a point of controversy in the education community, opting out is a path taken by a relatively small but vocal minority of parents.
Last year, 7.6 percent of charter school students and 1.5 percent of school district students opted out of SAGE, for a statewide opt-out rate of roughly 2 percent, according to the State Office of Education. That adds up to more than 12,000 Utah students bypassing assessment tests.
Scores from the tests are used to track student progress, as well as for state accountability programs, including school grading and teacher evaluations.
Legacy Preparatory Academy Elementary Director Karen Holman said part of the confusion over DIBELS is that it is required by the state in the early grades, but used at the discretion of schools after third grade.
She said the school erred on the side of caution by not requiring fourth-grade and older students to take the test in the fall, but later got clarification from the State Office of Education that because it was not required in later grades, it did not qualify as an opt-out test.
"We tried to meet with every parent who had opted out of the test," Holman said. "Some parents refused to meet with us, and those parents were sent a certified letter."
Holman said she couldn't speak about individual students because of privacy laws. But she added that while several families had initially opted out of DIBELS, only one left the school after the test was required.
"Most of my families understand that in order for a school to be sucessful, there has to be assessments completed by their students," she said.
Heather Gardner, Emmalee's mother, said she agrees that assessments are important. But she objects to the overuse of computers and technology in schools and the amount of data collection done through statewide tests.
"I'm not OK with a charter school forcing a child to take a test when their parent is not there," she said. "Nor am I OK with computer adaptive testing."
State Superintendent Brad Smith said his office is aware of parental discomfort with testing. He encouraged lawmakers to allow the state school board to find a solution without tying schools to new legislation.
"That gives us greater flexibility to respond in real time," he said.
Smith said he would prefer an annual opt out to ensure that parents are aware of changes in testing.
"It is simply untenable to have a one-time opt out that everyone will recognize from today forward until the end of time for students," he said.
Senate Education Committee members signed off on the bill unanimously. It will now go before the full Senate for consideration.