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As Florida schools prepare for testing, at-home learners are a concern

Some parents say they’ll keep their children home. Others plan to check out the setup before deciding.
Florida students begin taking their state assessments on April 5. They are available in-person only.
Florida students begin taking their state assessments on April 5. They are available in-person only. [ Pasco County Schools ]
Published Apr. 1
Updated Apr. 1

Florida education officials have made it clear for months: They want students to come to schools to take annual spring tests, which start on Monday.

“We need to measure,” commissioner Richard Corcoran said to reporters during an event Wednesday at Palm Harbor University High School. “Those measurements give us the diagnostic wisdom to go out there and wrap everything around that child and get him exactly what he needs to learn.”

Concerns remain, though, that the children who have remained at home throughout the year because of health-safety issues might not feel comfortable returning to campuses for the assessments. Many parents have spoken of keeping their kids home for the tests, too.

Hoping to convince them not to do so, state and district leaders have taken steps aimed at alleviating the worry.

The Department of Education extended the testing schedule and waived some of the restrictions on the times and days when they can be administered. That way, chancellor Jacob Oliva explained, schools can take steps such as added social distancing and off-hours testing.

Related: Florida schools get more time for spring tests due to coronavirus concerns

Tampa Bay area districts have attempted to implement some of those ideas.

The Hillsborough County district began its planning by asking parents of remote students whether they’ll show up. Assessment director Nicole Binder said that, despite the desire to identify where students might have fallen behind, the district acknowledges “you have to do what’s right for you and your family.”

“If that means you’re not coming in, that means you don’t take the test,” Binder said. “Nobody fails a grade because of one test.”

Hillsborough schools have canceled their own district semester exams, telling parents that coordinating local and state testing posed logistical challenges.

After getting that list of who plans to show up, the district next determined if it has enough adults on each campus to monitor testing. The goal is to have children already attending in person to test first, leaving the remaining days and weeks to flexibly schedule exams for e-learners, she said.

The district is providing buses for children who usually don’t attend, so transportation doesn’t become a barrier, Binder added. And some schools are offering weekend and evening testing for smaller groups.

“It’s up to their staff and their ability to do it,” she said. “We support it.”

In Pasco County, schools have provided families of remote students ranges of dates and times to come in for testing, district spokesman Steve Hegarty said. They have set aside rooms to separate the e-learners from the rest of the students, he explained.

Some schools have more online students than others, Hegarty observed, so each campus might have arrangements that differs from others.

Pinellas County parents of remote students said they received letters from the district assigning them dates, times and locations for their children to take the state tests. Some have been told if they don’t show up, they will be marked as absent.

“Participation in the assessment program is mandatory for all school districts and all students attending public schools,” the district letter to parents stated.

Parent Dawn Graham was not impressed with the district’s approach. She has kept her fourth-grader home all year in opposition to the district’s mask mandate, and told the school that she would not be sending her daughter in for testing.

“A child’s grades throughout the year should speak for itself,” Graham said via email. “Submitting children to hours upon hours of testing and requiring them to stay focused and sitting still for that long period of time as well as the anxiety that builds in children is not worth it.”

Pinellas parent Beth Allen said her two fifth-graders have attended classes virtually all year because of health concerns, but she’s willing to consider allowing them to return to campus for their state tests. She had apprehensions that their course placement in sixth grade could be negatively affected if they don’t sit for the tests.

But Allen also was willing to walk away.

“My plan for April 8 (writing) is to arrive at school with them, and with a copy of the email ... outlining the setup,” Allen said via email. “If I am allowed to walk them to the media center to confirm, I will. If anything is drastically different from what is stated in the email (if they are sent to a classroom, or if there are an excessive number of students), I plan to bring them home.”

With close to 30 percent of students still attending remotely, school officials said they understand getting the required 95 percent participation will be a difficult achievement. They have supported the state’s pending request for a federal waiver of that reporting requirement, and also have encouraged the state to use the test results for evaluating next steps only, not for imposing consequences such as grade promotion and school ratings.

Related: Florida to seek waiver on student testing rules

Corcoran said he expected to have an announcement imminently about how the state will use the scores, adding that he expected to continue to employ his philosophy of “compassion and grace.”