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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Only losers with the FCAT

From the Miami Herald, BY KATHLEEN McGRORY

Ceresta Smith had a litany of concerns about high-stakes testing.
So when it came time for her teenage daughter to take the portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test required for graduation, Smith allowed her to opt out.

“It’s not that my husband and I are against standardized testing,” said Smith, a public school teacher in Miami-Dade County. “Both of us acknowledge that testing can be a very useful diagnostic tool. But as it is being used now, it is damaging to kids and it is creating a racial divide in our schools.”

Smith is part of a coalition of teachers urging parents across the country to opt their children out of standardized tests. The group – which says parents have a right to say no to standardized tests — has supporters in all 50 states, Smith said, and has caught the attention of education bloggers and think tanks.

State education officials, however, say state law requires all children to participate in the testing program.

“It really is in the best interest of the student to participate,” Deputy K-12 Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen said. “The purpose of the exam is to collect information about how well a student is mastering information.”

Standardized testing grew more controversial when federal lawmakers signed the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago. The law required states to develop standardized tests in order to receive federal education funding.

It also mandated significant changes be made at the lowest-performing schools, which often enroll large number of poor and minority children.

Smith and others argue that those lowest-performing schools have been hurt the most because they have had to focus on improving their FCAT scores at the expense of electives and other academic programs.

“Our kids are stressed out,” Smith said. “And when they graduate, they aren’t college-ready. The only people who are benefitting from the tests are the corporations that are making big financial profits.”

Adding a new layer to the debate in Florida: Teacher compensation will soon be tied to student test scores.

State lawmakers say the policy will enable Florida to attract and retain high-quality teachers. But teachers’ unions argue the measure isn’t a fair way to evaluate teachers.

Is opting out really an option?

Under state law, participation in the testing program is “mandatory” for all students attending public school, including children in juvenile justice programs. Teachers statewide are directed to administer the exams.

A Broward County schools spokeswoman said parents cannot opt children out of state tests, including the FCAT. The Miami-Dade district had a similar take.

“The Florida Department of Education has advised us that students must be presented with the test materials and the opportunity to test [for] the full administration,” Miami-Dade schools spokesman John Schuster said. “If the student refuses to take the test, the answer document will be returned blank.”

But the law is silent on what happens if a parent or child opts out.
Each year, scores of kids statewide miss the exams, a state education department spokeswoman said. And while school districts need 90 percent of children to take exams to get a school grade, the impact on the child is minimal.

Only two of the exams dictate if a child will move on to the next grade or graduate from high school: the third-grade and the tenth-grade reading exams. In each case, there are options for children who miss or fail the exams.

Third-graders can present a portfolio of work that demonstrates their reading skills. High school students can submit concordant scores on the SAT or ACT.

State education officials say they do not have figures on how many children have opted out of the FCAT. Tappen, the deputy chancellor, said she had never heard of a student opting out.

Last year, a Tallahassee mother made headlines when she told the school district her son would not be taking the sixth-grade FCAT. But teachers gave the boy the exam, and he ended up taking it.

Smith said she and her daughter, Aisha Daniels, made the decision to opt out of the exam together.

Aisha, 16, said standardized testing has had a negative impact on the arts curriculum at her school, Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School in northeast Miami-Dade County.

“My teachers can’t get us canvases or paint,” Aisha said. “They are putting all of the money into tests. We’re doing tests, tests, tests, and we can’t focus on the arts.”

After Smith and her daughter decided against taking the 10th grade FCATs last year, Smith wrote a note to the principal requesting her daughter be given an alternative assignment during the testing period.

On testing day, school officials offered Aisha an opportunity to take the exam. But when she declined, the teachers gave her something else to do.

Aisha said she felt strongly about taking a stand, even though her teachers and school administrators gave her a hard time.

Smith felt similarly — so much so that she got involved in the movement on a national level. Her group is now planning an Occupy the Department of Education rally this spring to raise awareness.

Smith, who teaches at Norland Senior High, said she will continue to proctor FCAT while on the clock at work.

“But as a taxpayer and parent, I cannot be silent on it,” she said.

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