Sunday, September 23, 2018

Parents, school officials tussle over kids opting out of Florida tests

Pasco County dad Frank Lovetere so disdains Florida's testing system that last spring he made 22 trips to and from his sons' schools, taking them out rather than letting them test.

He's ready to do so again this year.

But Lovetere contends there must be a better way to opt out, one that parents who can't easily leave work to pull their kids from campus can use, too. He recently asked the Pasco School Board to let children sit quietly and read, or return to a classroom, after they finish their test or decline to take it.

"As parents, we're trying to work with them," he said. "We're not trying to create havoc."

But superintendent Kurt Browning's response in his regular newsletter to parents did little to satisfy families. In fact, a leader of Opt Out Pasco said, it may have made parents more likely to have their kids refuse the Florida Standards Assessments.

"What Kurt is doing with his intimidation tactic, he is causing more parents to go, 'Why is it this way?' " said Heide Janshon, a Trinity mom of two.

Still, Browning and many other Florida superintendents consistently reject such overtures by parents. And their anti opt-out policies are pushing families, already upset with the state's beleaguered assessment system, to go beyond "minimal participation" as their children decline the tests that begin Monday.

Browning advised parents that opting out is not legal, and that children in school must test. If children refuse to answer questions, they will have to sit quietly in the testing room until it's over. They cannot read a book. They cannot leave the room unless their parents remove them from campus — something that's also discouraged.

During the testing session, he said, monitors will remind children that the test is important, and encourage them to participate.

Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando schools follow a similar procedure.

"Our job is to provide the optimal testing environment for every student," said Anna Brown, Hillsborough chief information technology officer. "That student being able to display to the others that they are getting to do the fun activity of reading a book is unfair to the other students."

Turning in test materials early, or getting up to leave the room, could be equally distracting to children who are trying to focus on their tests, Brown added.

The only thing is, in the world of Internet and social media, parents here know that districts elsewhere in Florida don't take the same approach.

Seminole County schools, for instance, tell test monitors to "seat non-participating students appropriately to minimize impact on students who are testing." The suburban Orlando district also permits children to read in the room after turning in their materials, as the state allows.

A district spokesman said the provision allows Seminole schools to comply with state law while remaining "mindful of all children in the testing environment."

Brevard County, on the Atlantic coast, has directed its school leaders to work with opting out families to avoid disruptions.

"If a student responds in any way that they do not intend to take the test … then have a plan in place for the test administrator to contact someone who will quietly remove the student from the testing room and escort them to a designated holding space or back to the class from which they have been pulled for testing," Brevard's procedure states.

Parents in the growing opt-out movement suggest that's what they seek for their children. Requiring them to sit and stare for two hours while others test is punishment for children who are listening to their parents, Hernando opt-out leader Maria Schultz said.

"The average opt-out parent isn't that hard core," said Katie Vail, a Seminole County mother of two. "We appreciate any little thing a district can do to make the testing situation less painful for kids."

Hoping for such accommodations, many parents last year allowed their children to "minimally participate." That means they would open the test, sign in and push it away.

The state Department of Education logged in 17,709 tests considered to not be attempted in 2015, three times as many as a year earlier and a possible sign of the growing opt-out effort.

"We were doing all we could to get an NR2 (non-attempted test result code), which doesn't count against the school and it fulfills the participation requirement in the statute, since participation is defined as signing in and answering questions (isn't) mandatory," said Jinia Parker, mom of a Pinellas middle-schooler.

Schools that have less than 95 percent test participation do not get state grades, and become ineligible for school recognition funds.

The conciliatory mood could shift, though, if districts won't meet the opt-out families half way. Some parents have said their willingness to help the school's grade could give way to straight up test refusal.

"This is the hardball tactic that I'm concerned about and the reason behind my choosing to not send my son in at all and to instead see what the make-up brings," said Larry Richards, a Pasco parent of a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader. "From what I've read, minimally participating in the make-up, by signing in and pushing away, is met with a lot less coercion."

District officials said most of their school leaders know which children plan to decline the test, and they're able to work out arrangements in advance.

"We use common sense," said Brown, Hillsborough's information technology officer. "It's kind of a school-by-school situation."

Opt-out parents don't see it that way, though. They've seen their children forced to take practice tests and threatened with losing academic opportunities if they don't have FSA scores, spurring their skepticism.

"I'm not very confident the rules will change," said Lovetere, the Pasco dad. "But I'm not going to stop fighting. I'm fighting for all the other kids. The system is stacked against them."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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