Romano: A stand against school testing is long overdue

Published Sept. 14, 2014

The voice of the revolution is calm. It is kind. It is the voice of a 59-year-old kindergarten teacher who cares more about her students than her paycheck.

This is why Susan Bowles is refusing to give a standardized computer test to a class of 5-year-olds at a Gainesville school this month, a stance that violates her contract and puts her three-decade teaching career in serious jeopardy.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south, the Lee County School Board voted to stop giving state-mandated tests before it reversed a week later. School boards in Brevard and Palm Beach counties had similar discussions.

In the Miami-Dade School District, the largest in Florida, the board has asked the state for a delay in implementing a new high-stakes test.

And Opt Out Orlando, a grass roots group that helps parents navigate loopholes in the state's rigid standardized testing program, is expanding into other districts.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho described these developments as a "tsunami of growing consciousness'' across the state.

"Tsunami" might be a little overstated. But it is safe to say that after years of grumbling about the state's fanatical devotion to testing, we are seeing tangible signs of protest. Of, dare we say, revolt.

The question now is this:

Will Tallahassee ever listen?

"How much more preposterous does this have to get,'' Bowles asked, "before the legislators stop and say, 'What have we done?' "

Bowles did not arrive late to this party. She's had concerns about the quantity and quality of state tests for years. This was just the tipping point.

The state Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, which is given to kindergarten students three times a year to help determine placement and progress, has to be administered one-on-one with a teacher using a computer. Bowles said the tests were supposed to take 35 minutes, a challenging enough duration for a 5-year-old attention span. Some students, however, needed an hour.

Bowles said it would take two weeks to test all of her students, meaning a loss of instruction time and less attention being paid to the other kids. Now multiply that by three FAIR tests a year.

She told Chiles Elementary School administrators about her concerns, then spent last weekend deciding whether it was worth risking her career.

"I realized I could lose my job, which I hold dear. I love teaching,'' Bowles said. "But throughout history, people have put themselves at much greater risk than I'm doing. So if I wasn't willing to risk my job to protect my students, then what does that say about me if a bigger issue came along? I decided it was my duty to speak out.''

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The principal at Chiles de-escalated the potential showdown with the state by administering the tests while Bowles continued teaching her class.

The larger problem, however, remains.

Cindy Hamilton, Opt Out Orlando co-creator, says Florida's standardized tests are poorly designed, are assigned far too much weight, and have zero checks and balances because the state, in the name of test security, does not allow parents to review actual results.

Opt Out Orlando, which has 15 chapters, shows parents how to circumvent mandated tests by negotiating with schools to provide a portfolio of other work instead.

That is often a backup solution for students who don't score high enough on standardized tests. This way, students can avoid the stigma of a failing score, the threat of retention and remedial classes.

Hamilton says her oldest son had a reading disability in elementary school and didn't pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test . Back then, she said, failing the test did not have such dire consequences, and he was able to learn strategies to overcome his disability.

Today he is a computer science major at the University of Central Florida.

"He was already hyperaware of his reading disability, and if he had been held back or put in remedial courses, it would have affected him profoundly,'' she said. "His life would not be what it is today.

"What we're trying to do is make sure these big, life-changing decisions are made through a multiple of measures and not one test.''

So what would you call this? A tsunami? A revolution?

Me? I would call it necessary. And long overdue.