Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Over-testing in schools? Lee County's vote has educators talking about it

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The debate over high stakes testing in Florida schools has raged for years.

Parent groups have railed against it. School board leaders have deplored it. Just four days ago, Gov. Rick Scott called on his Department of Education to conduct a "thorough investigation" of standardized tests.

It took a vote by the Lee County School Board on Wednesday to push the discussion to a new dimension.

The Lee board's 3-2 decision to opt out of all state-mandated exams for its students energized testing critics, while forcing board members in other counties to consider whether they might follow suit.

"This is a movement," said Kathleen Jasper, a former Lee teacher and administrator who urged her board to act. "This was the decision that needed to be made in order for the conversation to start."

Some board members in other districts said they loved the idea.

"I think it's a fantastic decision — probably the best thing that could happen to students," Hernando County School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino said, suggesting state lawmakers should leave education to local teachers.

But others had significant doubts.

"My first reaction was, I took an oath to uphold the law," said Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner, a frequent critic of Florida's accountability system.

That law suggests that the Lee School Board overstepped its authority.

In a presentation set for its Sept. 5 directors meeting, the Florida School Boards Association notes that state law requires all school districts to participate in the state's testing system. If they don't, the FSBA document indicates, the state Board of Education could withhold state funding and make the district ineligible for competitive grants.

Other possible implications, according to the association:

• Students failing to meet graduation requirements.

• Teachers not being able to get completed evaluations.

• Schools losing eligibility for federal funds such as Title I for low-income students or IDEA for students with special needs.

Wednesday night, one Lee County board member proposed giving superintendent Nancy J. Graham time to study the ramifications of opting out, before taking a vote. But a majority rejected that idea.

A Florida Department of Education spokesman said the agency was reviewing Lee County's action but offered no further comment.

The potential problems scared off Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart, who initially found the opt-out idea intriguing enough to consider proposing it herself.

"The fact that they did it (in Lee) speaks volumes," Stuart said. "But doing it without a plan, I think it was premature."

Stuart's colleague Stacy White agreed that the many ways students could be punished made the opt-out — which is supported by the anti-Common Core advocates he sides with — less appealing.

"I'm on board with the conservatives that are fighting that fight," White said. "But let's fight it in a conscientious way and make sure we dot all our i's, cross all our t's."

The need to discuss the frequency and amount of testing has not disappeared, Pasco County School Board Vice Chairman Steve Luikart said. But taking radical steps to make a point is not the right solution, he added.

"I understand what Lee County is trying to do, bring attention to the fact that (testing) is out of hand," Luikart said. "What we need to do is sit with our legislators to talk about testing."

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he and his members are open to that conversation.

"We have a genuine willingness to have discussions on assessments and scheduling," Legg said. "But to simply say, 'We're not going to do assessments any more,' I would caution them not to go down that road."

Lee County School Board member Don H. Armstrong said at Wednesday's meeting that talking hasn't had much impact so far in Tallahassee. "I tried to fight this a year ago. . . . I'm done talking," he said. "Let's have action. That's what the people want."

Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall called the vote in Lee County "a bold step," noting that the union has long opposed overtesting. But she added: "I just want us to make sure that we are cautious so we don't harm any children who are ready to graduate."

Legg predicted the Lee School Board will revisit the issue soon.

"They've jumped into the deep end of the pool, and I don't know if they know how to swim out," he said.

In the meantime, though, opt-out activists have hope.

The Palm Beach School Board has scheduled a workshop on the topic to investigate the ramifications. And Opt Out Miami-Dade aims to pressure its School Board next month as it considers adoption of its testing schedule.

"They don't even know if the (state) test will be ready. There are too many unknowns," Miami-Dade organizer Suzette Lopez said. "I am urging parents to go and talk."

Jasper, the former Lee County teacher, noted that a move in Miami-Dade could change the political dynamic, because it is so big and influential. But at least one Miami-Dade board member offered little room for optimism.

"You would be hard-pressed to find any school board member who is 100 percent happy with the testing," Raquel Regalado said. "But what do you do about it? You don't completely opt out and put the burden of funding schools on your local tax base. The proper thing to do is to come up with solutions and take them to Tallahassee."

Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Marlene Sokol and Danny Valentine, and Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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