Utah Senator’s Proposed Commission Could Risk Funding for Schools

utah republican senator howard stephenson
Sen. Howard Stephenson (R)

At the Utah Legislature’s Education Task Force Friday morning, State Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) proposed the creation of a Education Accountability Commission, which could put some Utah schools at risk of losing federal funding.

The Commission would be charged with identifying and describing four levels of proficiency that are applicable to all statewide assessments. It would also set the “cut scores” for the top three proficiency levels for each statewide assessment. The cut scores are currently set by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NAEP, a program run by the National Center for Education Statistics within the Department of Education, is mandated by congress and is used to standardize tests questions across the nation to determine where each state ranks in educating children. As the program is a mandate, Debra Roberts, who sits on the State Board of Education, warned that Utah could lose funding if the state were to choose a program that differed from NAEP standards.

“It is a federal test,” Roberts told the Task Force, “If we were to step away from the NAEP, we would have some funding taken away from us.”

Membership in the proposed commission would consist of the Lieutenant Governor, three members appointed by the State Board of Education, three members appointed by the commissioner of higher education, and three members appointed by the Governor if Stephenson’s proposal were to advance.

Outlining the reasons he believes an independent commission would be a good idea for Utah, Stephenson says he feels that part of the reason the United States ranks so low when it comes to graduation rates and test scores is because “we may not be authentic in assessment of how we are doing ourselves.”

Kory Holdaway, government relations director at the Utah Education Association, has doubts about the notion of an independent commission, saying that “I struggle with that on a number of different levels. One has to do with the expertise required in order to be able to set those cut scores and established what those cut scores are.” He went on to caution against the creation of the commission. “I would just proceed very cautiously with creating a separate commission, as far as setting cut scores, because it’s a complicated issue.”

When asked by the task force’s chair, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (Republican – Sandy), whether he would like any formal action taken on the proposal, Stephenson said he didn’t feel it was necessary at this time.

Stephenson has advocated for changes to Utah’s current education system for years, most notably by pushing for completely digital K-12 courses and continues to be a strong advocate for the failed school voucher program proposed in 2007, as well as expanding charter schools.

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