Florida third-grade promotion decisions are local, Department of Education official says
Florida school districts that are requiring third graders to have a test score to avoid repeating the grade have misunderstood state directives, a Department of Education spokeswoman told the Gradebook.
"Our primary guidance to the districts is to follow the law," spokeswoman Meghan Collins said Tuesday. "Obviously, the law says participation on the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) is mandatory. But we never said you must retain a student who doesn't have an FSA score."
Moreover, Collins continued, the department never said that a student must sit for an alternate test before gaining access to other good cause exemptions for promotion allowed in law and rule.
"There is no hierarchy" of exemptions, she said. Decisions to mandate a secondary test, the SAT-10, come from the districts, she added. "That wouldn't be something we would intervene in."
Some districts, including Manatee and Sarasota, have asserted the state dictated that students must have a test score or be retained. They referred to a department email summarizing state law and rule on the subject.
Collins said that memo offered only a general overview of the promotion and retention process, and reinforced the bottom line message that districts must follow the law. It offered the citations and some of the language referring to test passing scores, but did not provide the rules in their entirety.
Other districts took a more permissive approach than Sarasota and Manatee, allowing students without an FSA reading score to use either a portfolio or an alternate assessment as possible proof of their reading abilities. Some parent groups and news reports pointed to Hillsborough and Pasco counties as examples.
Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said Tuesday that he did get the impression from some state officials that they were pushing for all students to have some sort of test score. He noted, though, that the law requires test participation but does not define it, and further that the law is silent on how to deal with those who refuse the test. Moreover, Browning said, the law clearly offers several equal options for good cause exemptions.
"What value is there for us, much less the student, to promote a student to fourth grade who cannot read at the third-grade level? All that does is cause more troubles in the fourth grade," said Browning, who has been an opponent of the opt-out movement. "We are going to make sure that third graders who are promoted to the fourth grade will have a mastery of the standards assessed on the FSA, and we can prove it."
A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough school district said that district has taken the same position.
Collins said the department won't be sending any clarifications to superintendents.
"We've been very consistent," she said. "Ultimately it's at the district level that these individual promotion decisions are made."
UPDATE: The DOE forwarded this letter from its general counsel to leaders of the state superintendents and school boards associations. In it, the department makes clear the appropriate uses of student portfolios in third-grade promotion decisions.
It notes, among other things, that "districts may not set limitations through policies that contradict state law."