Florida’s Lee County School Board Votes to Stop State Exams

The school board of Lee County, Florida made a dramatic decision to halt all state-mandated tests last week – a decision that puts teachers, students, and administrators in “uncharted territory”, according to Superintendent Nancy Graham.  Emily Atteberry, writing for News-Press, says that now many are wondering if the county will suffer punishments for its defiant stance.

The district stands to lose millions in funding.  Lee was given $280 million from the state last year, and that does not include federal funding.  Elaine Quisenberry, a spokesperson for the US Department of Education (DOE), said the distribution of dollars is left up to the state of Florida, since the federal DOE gives education dollars to the state itself and not to any specific districts.  The Florida DOE did not comment, but did release a list of the possible consequences last week.

Districts that do not comply with the state’s testing stipulations could lose state and federal funding, experience legislative action, and could even lose accreditation. Teacher pay could plummet and students could be refused a diploma if they do not take the ACT or the SAT.  Florida governor Rick Scott has spoken out against federal overreach, but says he does not know what penalties there may be in reaction to this move on the Lee County board’s part.

Superintendent Nancy Graham is against stopping the tests, believing that it will inevitably hurt children.  She has planned to bring the board recommendations, clarification, and alternates to the decision.  In her opinion, emotions and politics swayed the board.

“(The public) has no comprehension of the immediate impact of this,” she said. “If it doesn’t become an election issue, I’ll be very surprised.”

Board member Mary Fischer was the tie-breaking vote.

“Morally and ethically, I stand by my decision,” Fischer said. “Cognitively, I know it means it’s going to mean a lot of work. And we do need a plan. But we could not continue doing what we did to kids because it’s not right.”

The Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey Solochek reports that Lee County is not the only county that has standardized test critics.  Some board members in other counties said they were impressed by the Lee County decision.

“This is a movement,” said Kathleen Jasper, a former Lee teacher and administrator who urged her board to act. “This was the decision that needed to be made in order for the conversation to start.”

Others have doubts about the Lee County move since it goes directly against Florida law.  The Florida School Boards Association is planning a presentation which will note that state law requires all school districts to participate in the state’s testing system. Those districts that do not take part can face serious consequences:

• State funding could be withheld.

• Districts could become ineligible for competitive grants.

• Students could fail to meet graduation requirements.

• Teachers’ evaluation could be unavailable.

• Loss of eligibility for federal funding could occur.

The Hillsborough County School Board had considered opting out, but after observing the decision-making process in Lee County, they were certain that the issue should not be addressed until a solid plan was in place.  Board members saw that students could be hurt by premature actions on the part of the board and decided to take the more conscientious path of “wait and see.”  The frequency and amount of testing may still be addressed, but radical steps will be avoided.  Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, in response to the Lee County vote,  said:

“They’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool, and I don’t know if they know how to swim out,” he said.

Lee County Board member Don Armstrong described the decision as an act of civil disobedience and does not second-guess his vote.  Now, Graham will have to adhere to the vote and implement policy as set by the board.  Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post reports that Lee County is the ninth-largest district in Florida and the 37th largest in the country.  The county has 85,000 students.

Florida has been one of the loudest critics of standardized test-based “accountability” systems that use student test scores to evaluate students, teachers, principals, schools, and school districts. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was a leading supporter of test-based accountability and remains so.  Reformers say that test scores are an excellent tool for evaluation, in spite of continued disagreement from assessment experts.

State Impact Florida (NPR) reports that school board member Mary Fischer, who cast the deciding vote to opt out of state-required tests, wishes to reconsider the vote on Tuesday.