In Florida third-grade retention issues, the difference this year is the parents, Sarasota superintendent says
The debate over whether Florida's third graders must have a state reading test score to earn promotion has reached fever pitch in certain parts of the state, where school district leaders have insisted on having scores to prove a child has mastered the standards.
A hue and cry over whether children should repeat third grade is nothing new in Florida. The debate has replayed itself since the early 2000's.
What's different this year, longtime Sarasota superintendent Lori White observed during a Wednesday news conference, is the parents and their approach to the issue. In past years, parents lamented their children's poor performance, pointed out that a test can't show everything their children know, complained about the limited options for moving their children into fourth grade.
Then they followed the state guidelines -- take an alternate test, go to summer school, do more work that becomes a portfolio demonstrating their abilities.
"What is different is we have a few students opting out of the FSA and also the alternative assessment," White said. "We have a very small number students who have elected to do neither."
Offered a portfolio option, she continued, a few rejected that, too.
White noted that her district has followed the state's law, rules and guidance on third-grade promotion for more than a decade. Those make clear that students without a test score may use a portfolio, as defined by the state, to prove reading mastery. From the state's 2014 technical assistance paper to districts:
Can a student be promoted to fourth grade without a grade 3 statewide FSA-ELA score?
Third-grade students must participate in the statewide standardized assessment program required by section 1008.22, F.S., and demonstrate proficiency in reading in order to be promoted to fourth grade. Students not achieving a Level 2 or higher on the statewide assessment may qualify for a good cause exemption.
Some districts, such as Manatee, initially said they would hold back students without test scores and not let them use a portfolio exemption. They later changed their position, after being reminded of state rules.
"The student portfolio and an alternative assessment are the two state-approved options for good cause exemption and mid-year promotion. The student must be offered both options. However, the student must only demonstrate proficiency on one of the options in order to receive a good cause exemption or be promoted midyear," according to the technical assistance paper.
Other districts, such as Pasco and Hillsborough, gave children the option of a portfolio based on past classroom performance or an alternate test to show their reading abilities.
In Pinellas, spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said, district officials preferred the portfolio option, looking to the alternate test "as a last step" if the classroom work did not suffice.
Throwing a wrinkle into the scenario for some parents, though, officials in some school districts including Sarasota chose to define their portfolios narrowly, relying on a set of state appproved mini-tests rather than using a mix of unit and chapter tests, and other teacher-prepared classroom assignments, as permitted in state rule.
White said her district uses the mini-test portfolio model to keep the process from becoming too cumbersome for teachers. The Seminole County district uses a similar system, spokesman Michael Lawrence said. He described it this way:
"The third grade portfolio is composed of Literary text and Informational text with up to 15 questions per passage. It is meant to be an accurate picture of the student's ability. Students must read the passages and answer the questions independently. The portfolio must include evidence that the standards assessed by the Grade 3 English Language Arts assessment have been met."
Gabi Weaver rejected that portfolio system for her daughter Camryn, a student in gifted courses who was retained after opting out of the two tests.
"When I heard instead of a portfolio of her work they would be doing this assessment, I asked them to stop," said Weaver, adding that she asked the school three times to prepare a portfolio for her daughter because she would not sit for the FSA. "I asked them for a portfolio. But a portfolio is supposed to be of the child's work throughout the class. Nowhere does it say, Sit on a computer and take 25 tests."
State law says, "A parent of a student in grade 3 who is identified anytime during the year as being at risk of retention may request that the school immediately begin collecting evidence for a portfolio." The state technical assistance paper further explains, "A portfolio provides ongoing information on how a student is performing on tested benchmarks."
Weaver said her school did not collect information during the year. Lawrence would not comment on individual student cases.
Like other parents in a similar situation, Weaver has consulted a lawyer about her options. She suggested that it makes no sense to hold back a child simply for not having a certain test score, further contending that a narrow definition of "portfolio" also is hurting children.
She's also looking into private and home schooling for Camryn.
"My daughter loved school," Weaver said. "Now she's just, 'Can you home school me? I don't want to go back.' Any other grade they can look at and promote off of report card grades. Third grade should be the same."
Lawmakers involved in the writing of the law said they intended for all students to prove they could read at a third grade level before moving on. That proof could come through the test or the listed alternatives. They did not view report cards alone as good enough.
"How do we know those grades are accurate?" said John Legg, outgoing chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Critics of Florida's testing system said the tussle over retention should open the door to a broader conversation about how the state accomplishes its academic goals.
"Parents can and should push Tallahassee to overhaul this provision as well as other school testing policies. They should also pressure their district to take leadership in the campaign for assessment reform, as other superintendents and school boards have done," said Bob Schaeffer, the Florida based public education director of FairTest. "At this stage, however, expecting a district to ignore state promotion rules is a strategy likely to yield further frustration for the families in question."