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Opting out of FCAT is doable, but district discourages it

With last month’s FCAT writing test finished, students and teachers are now prepping for the reading, math and science exams in April. Spring break next week will be a welcome reprieve for parent Kathrine Tidwell, who says her child gets stressed and moody when testing time rolls around.

“The best part is the hives,” she said on The Press’ Facebook page recently. “They emphasize this test way to much!” Another Facebook user, Rebecca Scribner, said her son usually comes home exhausted with a headache after standardized testing.

Angela Callahan teaches second grade at Westside Elementary and leads the local teachers union. She said high stakes testing, while entrenched in public education, takes a toll on teachers, too.

“My son worries about it for sure,” she said. “He is a wonderful student and makes excellent grades, so he has no reason to worry, but he still does.

 

“It’s sad the amount of emphasis we put on one test. It certainly isn’t the teachers’ fault as we are required to prepare them for it. And in a couple of years that one test will determine how much money the teacher makes and if he or she gets to keep their job. That’s a lot of pressure to put on any person, student or teacher.”

Still, public education in Florida is built on standardized testing aimed at measuring student performance, comparing students at difference schools and in different districts, and evaluating the effectiveness of schools. The state’s FCAT and other standardized testing instruments affect nearly every aspect of public education here and across the state.

But what if students didn’t have to take them? What if some students could avoid the stress and anxiety that grips countless children and teachers this time of the school year?

It may not be widely known, but they can.

The alternatives are not any easier academically and district officials say they’re actually more difficult. Plus, the district’s “student progression plan” states “each student must participate in statewide assessment tests.”

What the plan doesn’t say is there’s no penalty for opting out of FCAT testing and the district lacks a formal policy outlining what happens if a student opts out or how parents can go about doing so.

Long-time school board member Patricia Weeks said no policy is needed because the progression plan already addresses the issue.

“Assessments of some kind are here to stay,” she said. “State education forces and the general public want to be assured that students are receiving an education that prepares them for life after high school … Unfortunately, testing is the preferred method of assessing the value of education being offered in our state.”

A left-leaning public education advocacy group known as United Opt Out National disagrees. It’s dedicated to ending high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.

The group’s been publicizing its second annual “Occupy the Department of Education” rally at the federal department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the first week of April.

The group’s website describes the event as “a four-day gathering of progressive education activists endeavoring to resist the destructive influences of corporate and for-profit education reforms, which began with the previous administrations and persists with the current one.”

In Florida, an international for-profit company, Pearson, is paid by the state to develop FCAT testing instruments, score them and distribute the results. It’s stock price has more than doubled in the last 10 years to more than $18 a share.

In Baker County, however, the school district’s director of accountability Susan Voorhees, who oversees FCAT and other standardized testing in local schools, said she doesn’t know of any students opting out here. Instead, she said, parents with children in private schools are requesting that their students be given FCAT exams.

“We don’t have parents opting out. We have parents wanting to opt in,” said Ms. Voorhees, adding that next year state law will require districts to administer FCAT testing to private school students who express interest. Today districts can deny such requests.

Impacts for students who opt-out

Ms. Voohrees agreed that state statutes allow students to opt-out of standardized testing without a penalty.

But the system is set up to encourage participation and discourage boycotting of state exams.

Ms. Voorhees said schools are required by law to administer the tests to every student in the classroom by placing a test form in front of them. She said it’s up to the student whether he or she completes all, some or none of the test.

Beyond the statement in the student progression plan that each student “must” participate in the test, she said the district has no policy regarding students who decide to opt-out.

There’s no alternative activities made available for students and parents are not notified that opting out is an option. Ms. Voorhees said that’s because the expectation is that all students will take the test.

“There’s no plan for students who politely opt out to do activities when the test is being administered to everyone else,” said Ms. Voorhees. “We’ll respect that decision, but there would be no plan for an alternative if the expectation is to participate.”

If a student is sick or there’s another emergency on testing days, students are expected to take makeup tests at a later date.

With no formal policy in place for students who decline to take the test, Mr. Voorhees said test administrators and school principals would be in charge of what happens in those instances.

She said the student would likely be asked to sit quietly if some gentle encouraging by the test administrator did not convince the student to take the test.

“That’s all they could do,” she said. “And the administrator would let somebody know, then it would be under further review to see what the state wants us to do.”

While students and parents can decide against taking standardized tests, either by abstaining from taking the test or staying home on testing and retesting days, students must still demonstrate they’re progressing academically.

For the full story, see this week’s print edition or subscribe to the e-edition here.

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