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Parents: Hernando schools are threatening students who opt out of exams

Published Apr. 3, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — Nicole Rinaudo thought she was well prepared to let her third-grade daughter, Fallon, opt out of the Florida Standards Assessment on Tuesday.

She informed Fallon's teacher at Explorer K-8 School of her decision in advance and advised Fallon to break the seal on the exam booklet to meet the state requirement that she "participate" in the test.

That, Rinaudo had been told, would allow Fallon's schoolwork — not one high-stakes test — to determine whether she advances to fourth grade.

Instead, Rinaudo received a text from the school Tuesday morning saying that because Fallon had declined to finish the FSA, she would be required to take another standardized test at the end of the year or "she would be retained," Rinaudo said.

"I talked to a couple of parents, and they said, 'Absolutely not. These tests should have nothing to do with retention.'"

Rinaudo was one of several parents of Hernando County third-graders who told the Tampa Bay Times that their children were threatened with retention for declining to complete the test. And statewide and local testing activists say Hernando is among a handful of Florida counties that have taken a hard-line against children who opt out.

"We have a ton of bullying stories," Maria Schultz, administrator of the "Opt Out Hernando" Facebook page, wrote in a message.

The page has just over 800 members.

School district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said the district did not know how many students had opted out of the English language arts section of the test administered last week, but 50 students declined to finish the earlier writing portion of the test.

Jordan said the district is not threatening students, just following state law. Also, she said, the district already has responded to parents' request for more information.

After Schultz complained to the Hernando County School Board in February that teachers and administrators had spread misinformation about the tests, Jordan said, the district produced an FSA fact sheet to ensure this would not happen.

The document, which Jordan said has been posted on all elementary and K-8 school websites, includes a section for students in third grade, when failure on standardized tests in Florida has long carried the possibility of retention.

The sheet repeats the state law's requirement that all third-grade students "must" participate in the test.

But if the results don't show the student is proficient — the inevitable outcome for students who "minimally participate" — several other paths to advancement are available, the document says.

Some of those only apply to students with learning disabilities. Others include scoring at least 45 on the Stanford 10 Reading Comprehension Assessment, the so-called SAT-10 test Rinaudo said was mentioned in the text she received from Explorer.

The sheet also mentions that portfolios can prove students are reading well enough to advance.

But Erica Farrell, the mother of a third-grade student at Pine Grove Elementary School, said she was told that the portfolio would not be a collection of class work, as she thought, but of exercises administered by a school employee — a setting that to Farrell sounded a lot like a high-stakes test.

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Neither Pine Grove principal Nancy Johnson nor Explorer principal Barbara Kidder responded to requests by the Times for comment.

Sandy Stenoff of Winter Park, co-founder of the Opt Out Florida Network, said the most important omission by the school district is a failure to emphasize that testing is just one of many factors determining advancement.

State law says the "standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion" and lists other factors that can go into such decisions, including "evaluations and portfolios." Another section of the law says that "report cards" can be used in determining student progress.

"Students can't be retained solely on one test score," Stenoff said. "There are other assessments that need to be taken into account before a student can be retained."

But Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said standardized tests are an important tool in determining a student's strengths and weaknesses.

Also, she said, the law clearly requires participation and does not recognize the path these parents are choosing.

"There is no opt-out clause or process for students and parents," Romano said.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.