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Teachers, parents protest new Florida testing rules

‘I think there’s an element in Tallahassee that doesn’t want to see us be successful,’ says organizer Katie Hansen, Flagler County teachers union president.

Believe it or not, Florida’s annual testing season begins in just less than a month.

To get teachers primed, the Department of Education sent out a memo in the waning days of February, outlining the do’s and don’t’s of proctoring. It included some new don’ts, including:

• Reminding students to check their work once they have finished.

• Waking up students who have been actively testing, then close their test book and fall asleep.

• Offering incentives to students for positive behavior during testing.

The response has been swift, and negative.

Teachers in two counties began online petitions to challenge the rules, which they argue run counter to best education strategies. Critics also took to social media to decry the changes as “ridiculous" (or worse).

“Our concern with the new regulations is that ... they strike at the heart of good teaching,” said Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Educators Association, who helped organize one of the Change.org petitions, which received more than 15,000 signatures in less than a week.

Hansen noted that teachers provide their students with useful test-taking skills throughout the year, including reminders to use their planning sheets and review all the work they have completed. When administering tests, she said, teachers regularly circulate to ensure the children are on task, encouraging them to stay focused.

If a student appears to be falling asleep, she continued, it’s natural to tell them to get back to work.

“Now, all of those have been banned,” Hansen said, stressing that teachers are not trying to help with specific questions or give any unfair advantage. “It violates what we know is best for children. I don’t understand what the purpose of it is, except to make our scores lower.”

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the intention is not to hurt students. Rather, the department wants to ensure that every student has an uninterrupted and equal testing experience, where no one gets added support (beyond what an individual education plan allows).

“We don’t want teachers to single out students” during testing, she said, so everyone “gets the same opportunities.”

Fenske said that reminding students to check their work has always been encouraged, and that remains true even in the new rules. However, she added, it must take place before each test segment, as part of the instructions.

She referred to the policy, which states: “While you may reread portions of the script during the break, including the section about checking their work once students have finished, you may not approach individual students who appear to have finished and instruct them to go back to their test materials and check their work. This includes individual inquiries, such as ‘Are you sure you are finished?’ or ‘Did you answer every item?’”

She further suggested that the rule on sleeping students must be determined on a case by case basis, and is not set firmly in the guidelines.

The department has not heard many complaints about any of this, Fenske said, calling the concerns a “social media push.”

Hansen said she hoped the department will get an earful, as more parents and other interested parties come to understand what the new rules say.

“Ideally, in my most optimistic world, it should have an impact — people standing together and saying this is just lunacy,” she said.

If nothing else, though, she wanted to at least raise awareness among parents and community members so they can have a conversation about the issues related to testing. And if the teachers aren’t able to encourage the students, parents will become more attuned to providing support at home.

The window for the third grade reading FSA, and fourth through tenth grade writing FSA, begin April 1.

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