Movement to ‘opt out’ of standardized testing slow to grow in Miami-Dade schools

Ceresta Smith poses with a movie bill for "Standardized," a 2013 documentary about the adverse effects of standardized testing, on Thursday, April 21, 2016 in her classroom at John A. Ferguson Senior High School. Smith teaches English to seniors and is a co-founder and administrator of United Opt Out National.
Ceresta Smith poses with a movie bill for "Standardized," a 2013 documentary about the adverse effects of standardized testing, on Thursday, April 21, 2016 in her classroom at John A. Ferguson Senior High School. Smith teaches English to seniors and is a co-founder and administrator of United Opt Out National.

In the national battle against high-stakes testing in schools, Ceresta Smith is a leading voice.

The Miami-Dade County high school teacher travels the country railing against corporate influences on education and using test scores to sort kids and teachers. The answer, she and other members of the Opt Out movement say, is to simply refuse to take the tests.

“You have a totally test-driven culture,” she said. “More and more innocent children are being stamped as failures early in their development.”

Across the country, thousands of parents and students have heeded the call. In New York last spring, more than 20 percent of students opted out of state tests.

But closer to home, Smith and her fellow Opt Out supporters haven’t found much traction. While it’s not clear how many students in Miami-Dade are refusing tests, everyone agrees it’s not many.

“There aren’t enough of us out there,” said Richard Ocampo, a Miami-Dade social studies teacher who has helped launch a grassroots movement to help grow support.

State numbers suggest less than 1 percent of students refused state tests last year. With schools in the midst of testing season now, it remains to be seen how many will opt out this year.

Gisela Feild, the head of testing for Miami-Dade schools, said her department has gotten fewer than a dozen inquires from parents who want to opt their kids out — in a district of 350,000 students.

Everyone is under pressure to keep the numbers small.

State education departments are required by the federal government to test most students, or risk losing funding. Florida also has a political reputation to protect, having made high-stakes testing a signature education policy.

School districts, in turn, face pressure from the state — or they too could lose out on millions of dollars. Principals have their state-issued grades to guard, and with it, the public perception that schools are doing well.

Even teachers unions in Florida say they feel squeezed, with teacher certifications threatened for engaging in “willful opt-out behaviors.”

All of that trickles down to the parents, teachers and students leading Florida’s small but feisty effort to opt out.

“The tests are of no educational purpose,” said Sandy Stenoff, who helps lead the Opt Out Florida Network, a state organization based in the Orlando area. “We want the high stakes gone.”

There are others who argue the movement simply doesn’t resonate with Miami-Dade’s poor, minority parents who make up most of the district. Indeed, the Opt Out movement has been criticized on Twitter for being “so white” and civil rights groups have championed testing as a way to hold schools accountable for failing children of color.

Smith, a civil rights campaigner in her own right, said activists will have to learn how to appeal to Spanish and Creole speakers, the undocumented and those who come from cultures that place unfaltering trust in schools.

“They’re not going to push in terms of taking activist stances, because they’re trying to stay under the radar,” she said. “It’s difficult for them.”

Opt Out supporters join the cause for myriad reasons, from student data and privacy concerns to worries about corporate influences on public education. But for the most part, they agree: not all testing is bad. They just don’t support the extraordinarily high stakes that can come with passing or failing.

Florida has led the way in high-stakes testing, using exams to deny diplomas, give teachers raises and issue school grades.

“It’s no measure of anything. And then we’re dumping this on third-graders, saying, ‘You’re responsible for our school grade. You’re responsible for our property values,’” Stenoff said. “That’s crazy. It has nothing to do with the kid’s education at that point.”

But boycotting the tests is complicated.

Florida law says “participation” in testing is mandatory. Pam Stewart, the state’s top education official, has insisted that Florida law doesn’t allow students to refuse exams.

Opt Out supporters, however, have taken “participation” to mean something very different.

Come testing day, parents tell their kids to simply write their name on their test, or log in if the exam is computer-based. Don’t answer any questions, and hit submit. That way, Opt Out supporters say, the student has participated in the exam without actually taking it.

“They can say all along, ‘There is no opt out.’ But we’ve been doing it for years, and our kids are just fine,” Stenoff said.

The education commissioner has gone so far as to compare test-taking to the requirement that all kids be vaccinated, according to notes the department released after Stewart led a phone call with superintendents in February.

“My belief is that students that do not want to test should not be sitting in public schools,” she said, according to the notes. “Statewide, standardized assessments are part of requirement to attend school, like immunization records. That is our message and what we send to you to be shared with your staff.”

There could be much at stake in states where the Opt Out movement is strong. This winter, the U.S. Department of Education sent letters to more than a dozen states where testing participation rates fell below the required 95 percent threshold, warning that federal dollars could be withheld. Opt Out supporters note that, despite the ominous threat, no sanctions have been levied on the states.

With the message clear from the feds and the state, individual school districts and school sites are left to figure out how to deal with students who are opting out. The result is a patchwork of policies that vary by district and school site.

Barbara Garcia said she tried to opt her daughter out of tests last year. She dashed off a letter to the school, Norman S. Edelcup/Sunny Isles K-8, to let the principal know.

The response, Garcia said, was swift and forceful: a meeting at the school and a letter from the principal that read: “no student or parent may elect to ‘opt out’ of the statewide assessments.”

“They bullied me into believing I could not opt out,” Garcia said.

Given her experience, Garcia said it’s no wonder that parents are reluctant to refuse testing.

“I think a lot of parents are scared of the backlash,” she said. “I’m sure everybody worries about how their child is going to be treated when you stand up and assert your rights. They don’t want that. They want you to sit quietly and do what you’re told.”

Feild, who is in charge of testing for Miami-Dade schools, said the district does not direct its principals and test chairs to put pressure on parents. The district walks a fine line, she said.

“I don’t want to say that we’re out there being forceful,” Feild said. “Miami-Dade does not want to enter the whole politics of opting out. We are going to abide by the law.”

Like states, school districts could lose millions of dollars in funding if enough students opt out of tests. In Florida, schools have to test a certain percentage of students to earn a state-issued grade, and the money that can come with it. Miami-Dade received more than $17 million last year in such “school recognition” funds last year.

Opt Out supporters say it will take the help of teachers unions to really grow the movement in Florida. They point to other states where unions have raised money for a campaign to support Opt Out.

“Teachers are so restricted in what they are and aren’t able to say. Their hands are really tied. The union can say a lot,” Stenoff said.

But Florida unions say they are on notice. In a letter last year to Sen. Don Gaetz, the state education commissioner wrote that “certain willful opt-out behaviors may warrant disciplinary action against an educator’s certificate.”

The state union, the Florida Education Association, said it would rather focus its time and money on electing state lawmakers who will enact sensible testing reform.

“We can only be as strong as the law allows us to be,” said Joanne McCall, FEA president. “I love that the parents are getting angry and opting out, because the best thing they can opt out of, is the politicians who are making these laws.”

The union has taken some steps to support the cause. The association recently posted a guide to opting-out, created by parents, on its website and has called on lawmakers to create an official policy and mechanism that would allow parents to opt their kids out.

Ocampo, a social studies teacher at William H. Turner Technical Arts High, is taking the matter into his own hands. Along with other educators and parents, he has launched a small group that is trying to grow support for Opt Out. They call themselves the Grassroots Education Movement of Miami, or GEM.

They are traveling to churches in black neighborhoods and gathering in union halls to recruit new supporters. Ocampo acknowledges GEM faces an uphill battle.

“South Florida doesn’t have a strong activist and labor movement overall, compared to places like Chicago, California and New York. So we’re dealing with that first. Secondly, people have a lot of doubts. They don’t know whether it’s legal or not,” he said.

Their goal for now is just to educate as many people as possible, so they can spread the word.

“We’re not going to wait around for politicians,” Ocampo said.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga

What are the consequences of opting out?

This is probably the most hotly debated issue among Opt Out supporters and education officials.

In Florida, student scores from the state’s standardized tests are typically used to decide whether third-grade students should move on to fourth grade. Students are also expected to pass certain tests in 10th grade in order to earn a diploma.

However, third-grade students can be promoted on the basis of a portfolio of work that the teacher would have to collect. Students can also pass if they earn a certain score on a different, national test: The SAT10.

In 10th grade, students are expected to pass reading and language arts tests, and an algebra 1 exam in order to receive a high school diploma. But that’s not their only option.

Students who earn a certain score on other approved tests, such as the SAT or ACT, can still earn a diploma. By not taking the state tests, however, the student is ineligible for a “scholar” seal on his or her diploma. The seal is given to students who meet certain requirements, such as taking advanced courses.

The Opt Out Florida Network provides a host of resources on the topic.

“We never promise there won’t be consequences for your decisions. We just put it out there and it’s up to you,” said Sandy Stenoff, who helps lead the Opt Out Florida Network from the Orlando area.

Education officials argue that opting out of tests robs students of every opportunity to pass third grade or graduate high school.

“The No. 1 concern, the No. 1 goal for us… is to make sure that our kids are afforded every opportunity that they have possible to meet those requirements for promotion in third grade and graduation,” said Gisela Feild, who heads the testing department for Miami-Dade schools.

Opting out also has impacts beyond the individual student, education officials say. If schools fail to test a certain percentage of students, they can miss out on federal and student funding that totals millions of dollars.

Also, teacher evaluations could be skewed if, say, all of the best (or worst) students opt out.

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