For more than a decade, Florida has become ground zero for education reform, creating the blueprint for education initiatives that have taken off nationally.
State after state copied Florida, implementing school grades, retaining third-graders who can't read well, and more.
Now, one of the biggest pieces of the program — high-stakes testing — has landed the state in the spotlight again. But this time, it's the pushback that's getting all the attention.
A growing group of activists who want the ability to withdraw their children from statewide testing is heading to the state this winter to push the envelope. United Opt Out National will hold its second annual conference from Jan. 16-18 in Fort Lauderdale, with a goal of getting some relief for students.
"This event is about planning and specific actions and training people," said Cindy Hamilton, a co-founder of Opt Out Orlando. "It is only going to make us stronger as a movement."
The three-day session will include seminars on such issues as organizing and using social media to raise awareness. Participants also will have time to share stories of their successful interactions with lawmakers and specific actions taken to escape tests.
Florida's prominence in the national testing debate made the state a natural for United Opt Out's conference, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Last year's conference was a small affair in Colorado.
"Florida was in the vanguard of the rush to testing," he said. "This is a time when a variety of forces came together and resulted in policymakers thinking they need to do something."
Florida law is silent on students who refuse to take state tests. In some instances, it offers options such as a portfolio of classroom work or an alternate test for children to use. In others, though, the test counts for a portion of the students' grade.
Next month's conference will be "a fantastic arena to get everyone together to discuss the issues and get parents more information," said Suzette Lopez, a leader of Opt Out Miami-Dade. "I think it's important that more parents understand their rights. … Now that it's getting closer to testing time, parents are coming to the reality of, do I do it?"
Education leaders and parent groups across Florida have called for fixes to the system, including removing student test results from consequences such as holding kids back a year or extensive tutoring. The Florida School Boards Association decided not to push lawmakers for an opt out provision in law, reasoning that such a move would give the Legislature a pass from solving bigger concerns with testing.
But lacking such change, more and more parents are taking matters into their own hands.
In New York, for instance, thousands of families held their children out of Common Core tests last spring, holding rallies to protest the tests and how they were used. Teachers, too, began to fight back. In Seattle, for instance, educators boycotted some district-mandated exams, deeming them a waste of time.
Heide Janshon of Pasco County is considering the opt-out option for her third-grade daughter. She's already asked her daughter's teacher to begin keeping a performance portfolio for the girl, just in case.
Janshon doesn't trust the new Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA, which hasn't been field-tested in Florida. She doesn't like that elementary-aged children will sit for 80-minute testing sessions over multiple days, for an exam no one has seen. "It's just set up for failure, and nobody can tell me what these results are going to be used for," she said.
She doesn't necessarily plan to attend the United Opt Out event, but she supported the need for parents to be informed and for tests to have instructional value.
If a child thinks he aced the test and then gets a poor grade, and no one explains how or why, Janshon said, "then what is the point?"
Lee County mom Lori Fayhee allowed her son to not take his fifth-grade FCAT tests last year, after seeing that the effect of opting out would be less harmful than if he took and failed it.
"This year we've seen a lot more interest from parents (in opting out), especially with the new FSA test and its projected failure rate," said Fayhee, an organizer for Opt Out Lee.
She contended that students are taking too many tests simply for the state to collect data, without any impact on instruction. Kids and teachers don't see the answers, she said, and therefore don't learn anything from them.
"It's of no value to the student. I feel the students are being used as unpaid employees," Fayhee said. "If we have enough parents participate, then I think it will make a huge difference."
Hamilton, from Opt Out Orlando, said the fight against testing can't just happen at the state level. It has to get smaller, she said, as different districts — sometimes different schools — handle situations their own way.
She expected the national event to help set more people on the path.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.