In Florida, Parents’ Opt Out Decisions Hold Back Third Graders

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Some South Florida third-graders who earned good grades this school year have been informed that they will be held back because their parents have refused to allow them to take state reading exams.

The moms and dads involved are facing a last-minute dilemma as to whether to send their children to summer school or take a stand against a Florida law that says grade promotion is based on exam scores.

Some parents are sending their kids to private schools and others are hiring attorneys. These mothers and fathers are part of the Opt Out movement, which is against high-stakes testing. They believe that school officials are holding students back without just cause. Students, according to the parents, who are ready for the fourth grade are not being given that right.

"Why did I have him in school for 180 days?" asked Cindy Bonilla, whose 9-year-old son was told he needs another year of third grade at Boca Raton's Sunrise Park Elementary. "Was that for nothing? Why bother having a report card if it's no good for anything?"

Bonilla says her son is reading at sixth-grade level, and other moms and dads are echoing these same sentiments. Palm Beach County School District Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald said he understood the disappointment, but he added that the law had to be followed.

The state law declares that third-graders must earn an appropriate score on the reading section of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA), or show "good cause" to be excluded, before entering the fourth grade. Examples of "good cause" exclusions include portfolios and alternative assessments.

The portfolio documents must include data decided upon by the district, but usually contain tests. The law was created to require that students would be reading by third grade and also to stop promoting children who were not ready for the next grade level. This measure has been in existence since 2003.

The Opt Out movement began last year in protest against the rigorous FSA testing. Those involved with the campaign faced no consequences at that time because FSA test scores were "held harmless" since the exam was making its debut.

Individual districts decide whether or not to retain students, but some parties are accusing school officials of retaliating against Opt Out parents, writes Brittany Shammas for the Sun Sentinel.

"If you refuse to provide the [test] data, they have to scare the dickens out of people so that they continue to provide the data," said Cindy Hamilton, an Orlando mom who co-founded the Opt Out Florida Network. "They have to do everything they can do to collect it and make sure that nobody tries this again next year."

Hamilton said parents knew the movement was risky, but they thought is was the only avenue they could take to fight against the many mistakes being made by the education community. These mistakes include doubts concerning the validity of the test, the overemphasis of the exam, and the troubling fact that the scores are tied to everything from teacher salaries to grade promotion.

But the issue affects only approximately 0.1%, or 224 pupils, in Florida's third grade. Opt Out parents told their kids to engage minimally in the state test, which meant the students opened the seal on the language arts exam but did not answer any questions, reports Leslie Postal for the Orlando Sentinel.

"Our stance is that … state law requires that all students participate in the FSA," said Meghan Collins, a spokesman for the state education department. "Given that line of thinking, everyone should have a score."

Bob Unruh, reporting for WND-TV, said in Greenville, South Carolina, roughly 12 students were disciplined because they refused to take the American College Testing (ACT) college readiness assessment.

Sara Wallace, one of the parents who chose to have their child opt out of the test, told the Greenville News that regulations for schools should not override parents' decisions. She and other mothers and fathers said they did not like the fact that their children were pressured to take the standardized assessment.

Superintendent Burke Royster said it was a state and federal law to use the ACT to test all eligible students.

06 29, 2016
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