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Passover conflict leads South Florida schools to rearrange FCAT testing dates

South Florida’s public schools are rearranging their FCAT schedules to address concerns that the start of high-stakes testing coincides with the beginning of the holy Jewish holiday of Passover.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho last week agreed to cancel testing on the first full day of Passover. Broward County had already pushed testing back one week, even though it puts schools and administrators on a tight timeline to issue and finish testing.

“We do have a significant Jewish population and to avoid conflicts with the students and teachers that are Jewish that would not be showing up those days for testing we decided to do this,” said Richard Baum, Broward’s director of student assessment and research. “The state gave us some flexibility of window in that time and we took advantage.”

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests are taken by students from 3rd through 10th grade, and testing dates are set each year by the Florida Department of Education. Test scores are used to rank schools and teachers, and can be used to keep a student in third grade for an extra year.

This year, FCAT testing dates for math, reading and science begin as early as April 14. That night, Passover begins at sundown.

The holiday lasts eight days, but the first two and last two days are considered holy holidays, said Rabbi Frederick Klein, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. Klein said some Jews refrain from doing any work during those four days.

Also, on the first and second nights of Passover, many families attend large gatherings called Seders where attendants share dinner and a service and talk late into the night. Those late hours and a Passover diet that shuns “leavened” products such as bread can affect both a student and teacher’s ability to wake up early in the morning and focus for a hugely important test.

“It really has a profound effect on our kids,” said Dulce Blacher, a former elementary school teacher who had worried her child in 4th grade would have a difficult time Tuesday. “We travel to Miami Beach and we don’t get home until super late. So you’re talking late nights and the wrong diet.”

The conflict also poses an inconvenience for families who want to travel or take days off to observe the holiday.

“These are labor intensive festivals of preparation and it puts a major strain on Jewish families,” said Klein.

Districts do hold makeup testing days. And the Department of Education encouraged districts late last month to be as flexible as possible under the dates allowed.

Still, pushing testing back one week means schools and administrators will have to rush to prepare FCAT tests and turn them over to the state no later than May 7. For that reason, Miami-Dade schools chose to begin testing on the 14th, cancel testing on the 15th, and hold a regular day of testing on the 16th instead of a previously scheduled makeup day, said Gisela Feild, the district’s head of testing, research and data.

“We wouldn’t be able to finish all the testing and submit all of our answer documents to the Florida Department of Education for scoring and scanning,” she said, noting that the district has tens of thousands of special needs students and English-learning students who need extra time to complete tests. “It’s unfortunate that the testing window put forth by the state does include Passover dates.”

The district also has a half-day that Thursday. And both Broward and Miami-Dade give students the day off on Good Friday before Easter.

Groups like the Rabbinical Association and Anti-Defamation League had asked Miami-Dade to follow Broward’s lead. But some accommodation was better than nothing, said Haza Holzhauer, the Defamation Leagues’ regional director for Florida.

“Bottom line, we’re happy this has been partially addressed,” Holzhauer said.

Miami-Dade School Board Member Martin Karp, who is Jewish, said he had heard prior to Tuesday from families that they were considering canceling Seders and from teachers who were going to miss the first days of testing. But like Feild, he worried that waiting until the 21st like Broward to start testing would cause too many problems.

“The main thing for this year is that the day following the first night [of Passover] is something that was looked at,” said Karp. “That’s the most critical time.”