Question on Utah biology test about aborting fetus with Down syndrome prompts policy change

Posted at 10:30 PM, Jun 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-03 16:19:47-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- The State Board of Education is investigating how a controversial question about abortion ended up on a high schooler's final exam, and the agency made policy changes to how some teachers administer tests.

A 10th grade student taking an online biology final for the Utah Electronic High School (EHS) came across a question that asked if a mother should get an abortion.

The full text of the question is at the bottom of the post, but in short it lays out how a doctor suggested a 40-year-old woman get an abortion after genetic testing showed her child could be born with Down syndrome.

The four choices include waiting and re-testing, considering all factors like religion and finances before deciding, following the doctor’s advice to abort, and leaving the decision up to the mother.

"The first thing through my mind was, this question violates Utah law," said Oak Norton, one of the founders and a webmaster for Utahns Against Common Core. "It's totally inappropriate for a classroom. No student should have this kind of question asked of them."

Norton got the picture that shows the test question from the high school teen who took the online EHS test. FOX 13 News reached out to the mother of the teen. She declined an interview, but did send us the photo her son took of the test question.

Norton posted the question online to Utahns Against Common Core, and eventually the Board of Education found out.

While the question features spelling and grammatical errors, Interim Deputy Superintendent Rich Nye confirmed the question was in the EHS test system. He said the student was taking a hereditary and genetics test for biology.

"That item has no place in a public education test," he said. "It's something that we find deplorable."

Nye said they immediately removed the question from the online system that houses hundreds of questions for EHS tests. He said the question was randomly selected by a computer, from the bank of questions, for the test.

Even the teacher didn't know the question was on the test, he said.

"We are currently looking into how many students may have been exposed to this test item and how long it's been in the item bank," he said.

Potentially, many students across the state have seen the question. Nye did point out that students taking the same biology final wouldn’t necessarily get the same questions, because the questions can be randomly chosen for each test.

Nye said teachers across the state who are in the EHS program are allowed to write and upload questions to the online bank.

The board needs to figure out who wrote and uploaded the question to the bank, and determine if it violated state law. Up until now, Nye said there was no vetting process for the questions, they relied on the judgement of the teachers.

But after the abortion issue came up, he said they immediately changed things. Right now, no one is allowed to upload questions until they come up with a stricter policy. He also said each teacher is now required to go over tests before they are given to students.

Nye said they are currently looking at every question in the bank. Norton is worried about what else is lurking in the mass of questions.

"We don't know how many other inappropriate questions are in that test bank, who wrote them," he said.

He said parents must be able to see the test questions, so they are aware of anything inappropriate and to help their students understand concepts they missed. Norton mentioned that the student said he had seen the abortion test question before, in a different quiz.

Nye said it's possible the same question came up twice, and they are also looking into how that would have happened.

Here is the full question with the four choices, written as it appeared on the test:

“John and his sister Brittany are high school students in a small town. Their mother Jill is 40 years old and has just learned that she is pregnant with a child. Genetic testing has indicated that the child has Down’s syndrome. Their family doctor has recommended that Jill have an abortion. John and Brittany’s mother and father have called the family together to discuss their options. Which of the following statements describes how the family should make this decision?

  • “The parents should wait until the baby is ready to be born, then re-do the genetic tests to see if the results have changed."
  • “The parents should consider many aspects of this decision including, religious beliefs, financial burden, the effect on other family members, the mother’s health, the doctor’s recommendation and the life of the unborn child and then make the best decision for everyone."
  • “The doctor has more scientific knowledge. The parents should follow the advice of the doctor and have the abortion."
  • “The parents should consider the wishes of the mother, since she will carry the greatest responsibility for the child, and do whatever she wants.”