In Florida testing, 'participation' means ... participation
Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart, among other state education leaders, has repeatedly stated that all public schools and their students are required to participate in annual state testing.
She's relied on the Florida statute that sets forth the rule as a way to bat back parents who say they wish to opt out of the system. Participation, officials declare, is mandatory and opting out is not permitted.
But what exactly does "participation" entail?
Some parents responded by instructing their children to "minimally participate." That means they sign in and push the test away without answering questions. Would that work, they have asked?
The Florida Department of Education has declined to say, though, whether answering no questions, or one or five, meets the mark.
"I feel like answering the type of question provides more information that could be construed as encouraging students or parents not to take the test," DOE spokeswoman Meghan Collins said. "That's just something we don't want to do."
Of course, the department tracks participation. More than 100 schools did not get grades in 2015 because they did not have at least 95 percent of eligible students participate on the spring Florida Standards Assessments. But the formula, it seems, is not readily available.
From the department's point of view, Collins explained, the test carries significant value. It helps schools, teachers and students know where they are performing well academically, she said, and where they need to focus their continued efforts. Their participation, she said, leads to academic improvement, so children should answer all the questions they can.
But is that "participation," legally speaking?
We asked the department for any policy, procedure, presentation, rule, manual or law offering a definition, to see whether the "minimally participating" students are, indeed, participating. Collins said the only operative document was the initial statute, 1008.22, that Stewart and others regularly have referred to. And the law does not explain the word. It just says:
"Participation in the assessment program is mandatory for all school districts and all students attending public schools, including adult students seeking a standard high school diploma under s. 1003.4282 and students in Department of Juvenile Justice education programs, except as otherwise provided by law. If a student does not participate in the assessment program, the school district must notify the student's parent and provide the parent with information regarding the implications of such nonparticipation."
Now some parents have started acting as if their kids haven't participated, and asked their districts about the implications of nonparticipation. We'll keep an eye on this one to see where it lands.