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  1. Education

As interest grows in opting out of state tests, Florida school districts get ready

Published Feb. 28, 2015

NEW PORT RICHEY — Laura Oosse has a tough decision to make in the next few days.

Her fifth-grade son gets tics and feels anxiety when facing high-stakes tests. Yet he's equally nervous about telling his teachers he won't take them.

In hopes of finding some practical advice, the North Pinellas mom drove 45 minutes Thursday to attend a parent meeting on opting out of the new state tests Florida will roll out next week.

It's an option that state education officials say doesn't exist in law. But a growing number of families and educators statewide have begun exploring it anyway in their fight against what they consider to be unnecessary, burdensome testing.

"I really want to have a permanent fix," Oosse said. "Right now, opt out is only a Band-Aid. But it's a last resort to get our legislators to wake up."

Some lawmakers have taken up the standard already.

One key example: Rep. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican, and Miami Democrat Sen. Dwight Bullard have filed bills that would let parents remove their children from state assessments, instead choosing a different approved test for accountability purposes.

The new Florida Standards Assessments begin on Monday, though. So parents have to deal with the law as it's written: "Participation in the assessment program is mandatory for all school districts and all students attending public schools."

It doesn't say students have to answer the questions, though.

That's what Oosse and other parents attending the meeting at a Pasco County Starbucks talked about.

"If parents and children together decide they do not want to take the (Florida Standards Assessments), there is a procedure," explained Heide Janshon, a leader of Opt Out Pasco, which sponsored the gathering.

It boiled down to having the child break the test seal, decline to sign the acknowledgement of the test rules, and set the test aside without answering any questions. For the computerized exams, they would sign in, follow the directions to get to Question 1, then click "end test now."

"That's the opt-out process," Janshon said.

The next steps get tricky, though. Some parents wanted to know if they can take their children home for the duration of the testing, or at least have them not spend time staring at the wall in a testing room.

Districts are handling that differently.

In Pasco, students who refuse the test will be told to sit quietly in the testing room until time is up, according to a memo that went to principals late Thursday. Test administrators are to "remind them that as long as there is still time in the session, they will be allowed to answer questions." Only if they become disruptive will they be removed and have their scores invalidated.

Brevard County testing director Karen Schaefer sent a memo to principals on Wednesday telling them their School Board's new directive is that anyone refusing the test should be taken from the testing site. It would be up to the school to determine how and where to supervise these students.

At a Tuesday meeting, Lee County superintendent Nancy Graham told her board that "the children who opt out will be permitted to stay in their classroom and read while the other children are testing." The county is a hotbed when it comes to opting out, with many parents supporting the School Board's unsuccessful attempt last year to remove the entire district from state testing.

Graham said the district must tell parents about the consequences of choosing not to test, which would not include disciplinary action.

Seminole County schools, where the opt-out movement also is growing, recently advised parents that students would not be penalized academically if they take an "NR2," the official code for not responding to the test.

"Students will be placed in grades/courses based on a review of a variety of individual student data points," according to a district memo.

Hillsborough schools' protocol is to have a proctor ask the student to continue. If the child declines, the proctor would take them out of the testing room to avoid causing a disruption.

The Pinellas district, where Oosse is weighing her options, has not publicly released its opt-out provisions.

With all the attention paid to testing and opting out in Florida, parent opt out groups have been springing up in many corners of the state. Many districts are trying to get in front of the situation, and the last thing they want is to have testing interrupted because the staff doesn't know what to do.

The number of kids opting out might be small this year, parents said. But they predicted it would be "astronomical" next year in the wake of bad results and poor reactions from students.

"NR2," Janshon said, "is better than failing the FSA."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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