Romano: Once again, education officials fail a commonsense test in Florida

Published Aug. 11, 2016

The first days of school are usually hectic ones for families everywhere.

Navigating the car circle. Packing a nutritious lunch. Filing an emergency injunction in circuit court. Where does anyone find the time?

Although, come to think of it, that last one might be a uniquely Florida chore. Because, for the life of me, I can't think of another state that is quite so dedicated to driving a wedge between its parents and its schools.

So what's this latest skirmish about?

It seems some parents of third-graders who were held back last year, including a handful in Pasco and Hernando, want a judge to allow them to immediately start fourth grade.

And, yeah, that's the kind of news flash I might normally consider a turnoff. It has the whiff of overbearing parents unwilling to accept that little Skippy needs extra work.

Except, in this case, the parents have a point.

These students were not held back because they did poorly in school. Most of them have documented records showing work that ranges from adequate to exemplary.

Instead, they were held back, the lawsuit says, because their parents did not want them taking a standardized test. And, in Florida's hierarchy of zealots, that translated to blasphemy.

"Testing in Florida has taken priority over everything," said Sarasota lawyer Andrea Mogensen, who is representing the parents. "And it seems everything about the test is connected to money. Money has polluted the entire system. The priority is not getting students to learn, but getting them to take the test.

"And these parents object to that."

It is undeniably true that money plays a huge role in this dispute. Testing companies make hundreds of millions in state contracts. Federal and state funds depend on minimum test participation and performance, and teacher pay is tied to test results.

All of which is making state officials bug-eyed about the testing opt-out movement that has been gaining momentum across Florida and the nation.

Yet this is what they fail to understand:

For parents, this is simply a question of trust.

Should they put more faith in the teachers who are with students 180 days a year or with a faceless corporation that won't let them see its tests or evaluate its graders?

That might sound snarky, but it has the advantage of being completely accurate.

I've said this (a thousand times) before, but the problem is not the standardized test. It's the weight heaped upon the test that puts so many parents and teachers on edge.

I understand the appeal of the test. It wasn't long ago that too many schools in Florida were promoting kids to the next grade by rote. So there was a sound reason to add a more objective, rather than subjective, element to promotions.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Except in Florida, we never see nuance. It's one extreme or another.

We treat the Florida Standards Assessment as if it is the only thing standing between a college education and a return to prehistoric days.

Yet the test was never meant to be the sole barometer of whether a student moves on to the next grade. It says that in state law. Report cards and documented portfolios can also be used to determine whether a student is ready to be promoted.

But the Department of Education is not crazy about letting that information get out, so officials instead push the idea that skipping the test is tantamount to educational suicide.

This has led Mogensen to point out that students who fail the test can have an easier path to promotion than those who skip the FSA.

Meanwhile, the larger problem is getting officials in Tallahassee to realize they have lost their way. They are so convinced that standardized tests are the answer to all educational woes that they have become more devoted to the tests than to students.

That's sad. And frustrating.

And for a generation of kids, it's potentially devastating.