Education

Parents push back on Florida’s standardized testing system

Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. Some say schoolchildren are taking too many exams. Others have concerns about the quality of the tests, and the way the results are being used.
Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. Some say schoolchildren are taking too many exams. Others have concerns about the quality of the tests, and the way the results are being used. The Miami Herald

In Orlando, they hosted a webinar on how to skip the state tests.

In Fort Myers, they convinced the local school board to eliminate all district-required exams.

In Miami, they created an anti-testing network of nearly 1,400 members.

Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. Some say schoolchildren are taking too many exams. Others have concerns about the quality of the tests, and the way the results are being used.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Suzette Lopez, who is spearheading the effort in South Florida. “It’s really hit a critical mass.”

The growing movement has caught the attention of state lawmakers. Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg recently acknowledged that students in Florida face “an avalanche of tests” — and said the Legislature is likely to get involved.

“We need to get our house in order,” said Legg, a Pasco County Republican who runs a charter school. “Some of those tests are outdated or duplicating other tests. They need to be put out to pasture.”

Don’t expect lawmakers to dismantle the state testing system.

In a recent op-ed published in Florida Today, incoming Republican House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said unraveling the system would have “significant negative consequences on student learning, education funding, and, ultimately, a graduate’s ability to find a job in today’s global marketplace.”

Opposition to testing in Florida is nothing new. For years, parents said the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests put unnecessary pressure on students and dampened creativity in the classroom. The controversial exams determined whether third-grade students would be promoted to the fourth grade and whether high-school students would graduate. They were also used to award letter grades to schools.

The FCATs have been retired, and new exams called the Florida Standards Assessments will soon take their place. But parents and teachers have seen few sample questions, and doubt whether districts will have the technology needed to make the transition.

Adding to the uncertainty: School systems around the state are finalizing a series of new exams that will be tied to teacher salaries. The assessments will be given in every subject, including art and physical education.

“We’re seeing too many changes in one year,” said Cindy Hamilton, a parent activist from Orlando. “We have a new performance-pay system [for teachers]. We have a new test that is just a big mystery to everyone. Superintendents will tell you that this is a train wreck.”

She and other parents are organizing in unprecedented ways.

Hamilton’s group, Opt Out Orlando, started in 2013 as a small network of parents who didn’t want their children taking the FCAT. There are now 16 Opt Out groups in Florida, including a Miami-Dade chapter with nearly 1,400 members on Facebook.

Last month, Opt Out Orlando hosted a webinar for parents on how to circumvent Florida’s testing requirements. More than 900 people participated.

Ceresta Smith, a Miami-Dade teacher and parent who is a leader in the national Opt Out movement, said that she and others hope to see a long-term solution putting an end to high-stakes assessments.

“There is nothing wrong with some testing,” Smith said. “But it needs to be used as a tool. It should never be attached to a student’s ability to graduate or a teacher’s pay.”

Parent activists in Fort Myers have taken a different approach. They’ve pushed their district to opt out of testing.

The parents, many of whom are right-leaning critics of the Common Core State Standards, initially tried convincing the Lee County School Board to put a moratorium on the state tests. The school board consented, but quickly reversed its decision out of fear it would lose state funding.

Board members later approved a moratorium on the 68 tests required by the school district.

Parents aren’t the only ones with concerns.

Last week, a consortium of 11 school boards — including Miami-Dade and Broward — called on the state to suspend high-stakes testing for three years. Separately, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has said the state must pause and reassess its testing program.

The backlash has come from both the left and right, and has been virtually impossible to ignore in an election year.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has called for an “investigation” into state testing as part of his reelection platform. Democratic candidate Charlie Crist recently said testing is “out of control.”

“You don’t have to have this kind of emphasis on it,” Crist said last week.

Any effort to improve the system would involve both the state and local school districts. Most school systems have their own testing requirements in addition to what is mandated by the state.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future, an influential think tank that has championed assessments, is advocating for “fewer, better tests.”

“We need to understand that there is great value to testing,” Executive Director Patricia Levesque said. “We also need to make sure that we are not doing too much of it, and that we are actually using it to help students, parents and teachers.”

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and longtime school administrator, said he plans to raise the issue when the legislature reconvenes.

“This is a critical time,” he said. “We have to be ready to admit if something is not working and make the change.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory @MiamiHerald.com.

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