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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hernando school district loses lawsuit, punishes kids

After losing a round in a lawsuit over state testing rules, the Hernando County School District has decided to play hardball — with students. Last week, a Leon Circuit judge told Hernando and several other districts they were wrong to hold back third-graders who opted out of a standardized reading test but could otherwise show they were reading at grade level. Hernando officials immediately appealed the judge's order, then punished the kids involved in the lawsuit by saying they had already given away their coveted spots in a magnet program. The district should drop its shameful, punitive stance and let the students join their fellow fourth-graders.

Seven Hernando families joined others from around Florida in a lawsuit challenging the state law that requires third-graders to pass the Florida Standards Assessment in reading or be held back a year. The parents, part of the growing opt-out movement opposed to Florida's testing system, instructed their kids to sit for the FSA, sign their names and do nothing more. School districts have been unsure how to handle these situations, and the Department of Education hasn't given them much clarity.

State law spells out other means, including alternative tests or a portfolio of class work, for students to prove they are reading at grade level. The debate has been over whether students who don't take the test can use those options. Many districts, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, allow students who opt out to use the alternative measures to earn promotion to fourth grade. But others, including Hernando County, insisted that a student with no FSA score had to be held back. Last week, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers found that to be illegal and ordered Hernando to accept portfolios from students who opt out. The judge's ruling, which is not final, is a reasonable remedy that ensures successful students do not get held back for bureaucratic reasons.

But reason flew the coop in Hernando County, to be replaced by cruelty. When three would-be fourth-graders showed up for school last week, backpacks loaded, they had a door slammed in their faces. Chocachatti Elementary, an arts-themed magnet school, had given away their seats while the lawsuit played out in court. District officials pointed to a policy that requires students to report for class within five business days of the start of the school year or lose their seat. Rules are rules, right? Hernando officials could have seen this situation for the exceptional one it is. They could have held the students' spots until the judge's ruling offered more direction. They did none of those things, hurting only the students who have become innocent pawns.

Florida's high-stakes testing system is bound for a reckoning. Too many parents don't trust the tests or don't agree with the philosophy behind accountability. The opt-out movement is getting louder, and more lawmakers are listening. In the meantime, students at the center of battle just need to go to school in the appropriate grade level. Hernando officials should let them back in to Chocachatti Elementary immediately, and if they continue to refuse, Gievers should order it. Either way, district officials look like bullies who, unable to defy a judge, picked a weaker target: fourth-graders.