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More parents taking their students out of testing
Group says numbers spike in recent weeks
By Denise Smith Amos Fri, Mar 27, 2015 @ 11:43 am | updated Fri, Mar 27, 2015 @ 4:50 pm
A movement by parents to boycott or “opt out” of the new state assessments is small but growing, organizers say, especially on Florida’s First Coast.
About 3,000 people have joined “opt out” groups around the state, said Sandy Stenoff, a parent who founded Opt Out Orlando, the oldest of the groups with 2,962 members.
It is affiliated with 34 other groups encompassing 31 school districts, including Duval’s Opt Out group, started in November, which has 77 members, Nassau’s which has 16 members and St. Johns which has 173.
Baker County has no Opt Out group, she said, but Clay County’s just started last week.
Just because they’re members doesn’t mean those parents are opting out.
Jacksonville-area schools are reporting only a handful of students sitting out the test last week.
“There’s been an increase in inquiries about how to opt out and more interest in opting out than I’ve ever seen before,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval schools.
“Many parents do not understand our challenge ... We want to respect the individual rights of parents, but at the same time we have to advocate for 100 percent test participation.”
Recent letters from state officials to school districts and parents said opting out was not an option spelled out in state law. But instead of discouraging parents, the letters enticed some parents to join opt out groups, Stenoff said.
NUMBERS JUMP IN RECENT WEEKS
“Since the campaign of intimidation from the (Florida Department of Education) and from certain districts, we have seen our numbers explode,” Stenoff said. “We have grown from 1,700 to almost 3,000 in the last two weeks alone. That’s just the Opt Out Orlando group. The other groups are growing steadily by the day as well”
Many people are joining just to learn about their rights and to support parents’ ability to make testing decisions for their children.
“We opted out as representatives for all kids, because they should not have to be in that stressful testing situation,” said Lisa Ross, an education professor whose sixth-grade and eighth-grade daughters opted out of tests in St. Johns County schools.
“This is about more than my two daughters,” Ross wrote in emails to school officials. “Students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds, English language learners, and students with disabilities are more likely to be denied diplomas, retained in grade, placed in a lower track, or unnecessarily put in remedial education programs.... Young children are stressed and scared about the tests. They are terrified that they will be held back in school.”
Ross said Florida’s new tests, called the Florida Standard Assessments, are less age-appropriate for youngsters than the FCAT was. “The tests are unfair to students,” she said. “What is the purpose of making students feel kind of crappy?”
State officials disagree. They said the tests are expertly compiled to be developmentally appropriate. Districts, they said, have had enough time to teach students the academic standards they need to succeed in the tests.
The new tests are considered more difficult than the old FCAT exams and they are designed to measure critical thinking and long-term college-readiness, while helping students compete globally.
BILLS AIM TO BLUNT TESTING
Even so, criticism of Florida’s new testing regime, and some recent testing glitches, have some state lawmakers considering bills to reduce some of the impact of the tests.
This week education bills advanced in the House and Senate which would reduce the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation tied to test scores from 50 percent now to 33 percent. The measures also would trim the number of state and district-issued tests.
An amendment added last week to the Senate bill could also stop the state from holding back low-scoring third graders until Florida’s new exam can be validated by an outside, independent authority. The companion House bill does not contain that language, however.
Currently, third graders who score too low in reading exams are likely, with some exceptions, to be held back or go to summer school. Many older students who don’t pass Algebra 1 or 10th grade language arts exams would not be able to graduate.
Parents in local opt out groups say that creates too much pressure, especially for young students.
Shannon Kapparis, a Yulee-based parent, said had she known about opting out earlier, her third-grade daughter, Riley, would have sat out the reading test. Based on Riley’s prior tests, Kapparis worried that Riley would likely not do well on the new test and be held back.
Riley took the test earlier this week but didn’t finish its questions, believing she’d get time to finish on a test make-up day. Kapparis explained that that was not the case.
Riley cried herself to sleep. That night, Kapparis sent a Facebook message to state Rep. Janet Adkins, asking why lawmakers put such burdens on children.
“I hope you sleep well with my child’s and others’ futures in your hands,” she wrote. “Now excuse me, while I go pick up the pieces!!!”
Kapparis said Thursday that Riley finished her math test Wednesday, but the 9-year-old still must do extra “portfolio” work after school and possibly take another test to be promoted to fourth grade.
Kristen Schulte, a St. Johns County mother of a fourth-grader, had her daughter sit out the reading and math tests, saying the test preparation takes too much time away from learning. She complained that the school sent home a thick workbook for her daughter to practice for the tests over spring break.
“I don’t disagree with testing, but traditional testing was ... to obtain an idea about where the kids were, whether they were learning at grade level, and were they performing at an acceptable level to achieve the goals their teacher and schools had set for them,” Schulte said.
“This is high-stakes testing. This is money now. You’ve got billions of dollars, federal dollars and private interest dollars, all filtering into these tests. Someone’s getting rich, and it’s not us. It’s at the expense of our children’s wellbeing.”
She likened her decision to other educational choices parents make, such as homeschooling or enrolling in a private school, options which don’t subject students to state standardized tests, she noted.
“Just because I made a choice to enroll her to receive a free public education does not mean that I have to lay down and take what’s being thrown down at me. I don’t believe in this test platform,” Schulte said.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s note to parents and districts points out that Florida law requires all students in public schools to participate in annual testing.
PARTICIPATION WITHOUT TESTING
Opt Out groups say students can “participate” without taking the test.
They advise parents who wish to opt out to let students open their test and fill in their names — or log on if the test is online — but to leave all the questions unanswered. That way, the student’s test is counted and coded NR2, meaning there are not enough answers to generate a score.
State education officials said this was not what was intended by lawmakers; the state believes participation means taking the test.
“It’s the law, to take the test,” said Claudia Claussen, an education department spokeswoman.
Vitti says he supports Florida’s new education standards but not the state’s plans for using this year’s tests. He told parents at Atlantic Coast High last week that opting out means their children’s performance won’t contribute to schools’ overall grades and could reflect negatively on the school, principal and teachers.
“You have to consider that,” he said, urging parents to talk to a teacher or a principal before deciding whether or not to test.
Also, he said, without test scores it’s harder for school staff to know if a child needs extra help or if a student should be placed into advanced or accelerated classes, he said.
“We are advocating that all children test,” he said.
There are other drawbacks to opting out, parents say.
Amy Hynes-Johnson, a Mandarin parent whose fourth-grader and two fifth-graders opted out of tests this week, said they sat in the testing room for 80 minutes at a time. But because they didn’t test, when their classmates had an after-test party at school, her children were sent to another room.
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083