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Parents And Districts Spar Over Right To Opt Out Of Standardized Tests

Elier Poulin scrambled up tree trunks while his classmates were taking the FSA.
Nicole Poulin
Elier Poulin scrambled up tree trunks while his classmates were taking the FSA.

What should a school do when parents don’t want their kids to take a standardized test?  Public school students across Florida are in the midst of testing season, and state law says the tests are mandatory; there’s no formal mechanism to “opt out.” But plenty of Florida parents are instructing their children to do just that.

“The FSA stands for the Florida State Assessment,” declares Hollywood third grader Gabriel Hughes-Harris, preparing to explain his experience on test day. It’s actually the Florida Standards Assessment, the set of statewide tests given to public school students in third to 10th grade every spring. The results affect everything from teacher evaluations to how much funding a given school receives.

In Gabriel’s grade, the FSA is the main measure districts use to promote kids to fourthgrade, or hold them back for another year. “First thing when he woke up that morning,” his mother Alexandra Hughes, recalls, “he  was like ‘Mom, Mom, Mom, What’s going on with the FSA. Am I going to fail?”

“He was worried the day of, and he was worried the days before,” she says, “and that’s because they kept drilling it in their heads, ‘you have to come, you have to take it, it’s the only way you’re going to pass.’

Hughes thinks the FSA and other ‘high-stakes’ tests put too much pressure on young kids. So she decided that Gabriel shouldn’t take it.

“I just signed my name, and I raised my hand, and I just  told I had to go to the office,” Gabriel recalls, “and my mom was waiting there and she picked me up.”

Gabriel spent less than 10 minutes in the room—just enough to be counted as “minimally participating” without answering any questions. Opt-out parents across Florida have tried to take a similar approach, asking for concessions like allowing their children to read or go to another room during the tests.

But Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer at Broward County Public Schools, says this is where things get tricky: “They are pitting local officials against what is a federal policy,” Gohl says. Federal law says states have to test at least 95 percent of students each year, Gohl points out. “Should we choose not to comply with that policy, we would need to turn away all federal funding for free and reduced meals, for special education, for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Technically, that’s true: The federal government can withhold school funding for states that miss the mark. But that doesn’t mean it will. California, New York and a half dozen other states with large opt-out movements fell below that 95 percent threshold last year. Their only penalty has been to submit written plans to boost future participation.

Enforcing a testing mandate on individual families is a delicate proposition. As Carol Burris, a former New York principal who now directs an advocacy group called the Network for Public Education, says, “The practical matter is you can’t really force a student to take a test.”

In many Florida districts, information sent home says only that the FSA is mandatory, and reiterates potential consequences for skipping the test or scoring too low. Letters to parents, for instance, might cite state law, without spelling out the fact that the statute does allow for ways to make it to fourth grade without taking the FSA. Often, there’s no mention at all of opt-out, even in districts with vocal opt-out parent groups.

“I think that the fear is that if that becomes easy, if it becomes acknowledged, that more kids will, in fact, refuse the test,” Burris says.

In Pembroke Lakes, Nicole Poulin kept her son Elier home from school on the first day of math testing, and the two of them went out to breakfast instead.

Poulin says Elier’s principal seemed willing to work with her on opting out of the FSA when they discussed  it in person or on the phone. But when she emailed to ask for something in writing, it said Elier would have sit for the duration of the test. “So I responded back with, what you’re telling me, if I’m reading this correctly, is that he’s going to have to sit and stare at the wall for 80 minutes?” Poulin says. “[The principal] didn’t respond to that at all."

The conflict between parents' rights and state education policy puts individual school administrators in a difficult position. The State Department of Education declined requests for an interview, but guidance from Commissioner Pam Stewart makes it clear that schools that allow parents to opt out could face state sanctions and lose funding.

Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, says standardized testing offers an objective measure of “whether or not schools are reaching every student,” a position echoed in guidelines to principals distributed by Broward County Public Schools.

“On the macro level, that’s the public policy reason,” Amundson says. “Now, I do think schools need to do a much better job of talking to parents about, ‘Here’s what this means for Johnny...And I acknowledge that that has not been done very successfully."

But Nicole Poulin says better communication with the district wouldn’t cut it. Like many opt-out parents, her objections to the FSA are far broader.  She’s a former public school teacher herself, and she says she watched with dismay as more and more of her students’ school year got eaten up by test prep.

“I don’t think anything is going to change until the district and the state see that we won’t allow our children to be subjected to this year after year.” She says opting out is the best way make that point.

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Rowan Moore Gerety