Friday, November 17, 2017
Education

On Passover, Jewish families contend with FCAT

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Everyone is bleary-eyed at the Passover table, if they're in the right spirit, the adults from red wine, the children from staying up past bedtime. The point of the holiday, for the Jewish people, is to relax. They celebrate the exodus of their people from slavery in ancient Egypt by singing songs and slouching — it's encouraged — in pillow-backed chairs.

That's not the case this year, say local parents. On days when their children are supposed to be home celebrating, area districts have scheduled the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough are all offering excused absences and makeup days for students who miss the test for religious observances, and state officials say they are bending their rules to accommodate these children.

But parents, who describe rescheduling and shortening their celebrations of the important Jewish holiday, say the scheduling feels insensitive at best, and discriminatory at worst.

"If this had happened on Good Friday, they'd say, 'Oh my goodness' and cancel everything," says Jennifer Allan, the mother of two students in Pasco elementary schools. "Nobody seems to realize there's more than just Christian children in these schools."

Lois Young, a Land O'Lakes grandmother with children in Hillsborough and Pasco elementary schools, says the makeup days put the children at a disadvantage because they take the tests out of their element.

"If they were taking it in their own classroom with their regular teacher there would be no problem with a different date, but of course you know that's not possible," said Young, who also worried about her grandchildren missing instructional time during makeup exams. "We're not talking about something that takes half an hour. You're missing class."

Pinellas and Pasco have both scheduled FCAT administrations during Passover, while Hillsborough avoided the actual holiday but couldn't avoid testing on the morning after the late-night celebration, called a seder. Passover runs Monday through April 22.

The districts point to the state's limited window to test, which begins next week and requires scores to be reported in early June. In addition, the state has mandated that more students take standardized tests on computers. That spreads testing out over more days because districts don't yet have enough computers to meet the need.

"Every now and then, every few years, this does occur," says Victoria Ash, the bureau chief for K-12 student assessment for the Florida Department of Education. Ash says she worked with rabbis across Florida and the Anti-Defamation League to make sure all students had an opportunity to take the exam in what she agreed was a less-than-desirable situation. She could not guarantee, however, that things would go differently next year.

The new, Common Core-aligned assessments have yet to be developed but are supposed to have a writing portion that can't be machine-scored. "That adds time, so what it probably impacts is our schedule for administration," Ash says.

Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for Pasco schools, said she was unsure why Hillsborough was able to schedule around Passover and Pasco was not. "It is logistically impossible for us to get all the testing done we need to get done and not have testing on some religious holiday," she says.

In Pinellas, where testing will conflict with Passover on Tuesday, Wednesday and April 22, the Pinellas Board of Rabbis met with superintendent Mike Grego and his deputy Bill Corbett.

Daniel Treiser, the rabbi at Clearwater's Temple B'nai Israel, and the head of the board, characterized the discussion as friendly. "Pinellas, due to its limited resources, computer availability and deadlines, felt there was no other alternative than to offer it," Treiser said.

He added: "I think the reliance upon these tests to such an extreme that it interferes with children's and teachers' civil liberties to be able to observe their holidays in the way they want is just another indicator of our overreliance on these exams."

In the future, he hopes a member of the Board of Rabbis will be invited to the district's committee that schedules testing. This year, he has focused his efforts on telling parents to confirm makeup dates with their schools as soon as possible.

Public school systems in Florida do not track students by religious affiliation. But a 2011 study by University of Miami geography professor Ira Sheskin estimated that Pinellas County had the largest Jewish population in the state outside of South Florida, with about 13,500 Jewish households. Hillsborough and Pasco counties had 11,750 and 1,550 Jewish households respectively. The results were reported in the Jewish Press.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

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