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Can Florida honors students be held back if they 'opt out' of state tests?

Students in Florida may have to repeat third grade because their parents choose to pull them out of taking the state standardized tests.

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    Burgess-Peterson Elementary School principal Robin Robbins (c.) meets with students during an after-school study program in Atlanta, in preparation for state standardized testing.
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Parents in six Florida counties are suing school officials and school boards after a number of third graders were not allowed to move on to the fourth grade because their parents had chosen to pull them out of Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) reading tests.

Many of the students involved were honors students who had already demonstrated they possessed the required reading proficiency level in their academic work, but they were still prevented from advancing to fourth grade.

The lawsuit is based on claims of inequitable treatment, because only certain Florida counties interpret the third grade retention law to mean that opting out of the FSA means being held back a grade. The Florida Department of Education has never required it. 

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers held a meeting to consider the request, but decided to let the law stand for now in order to give the school time to respond. She said she is worried about the students involved who have already started school for the 2016-2017 year, and added she could rule by the end of next week.

"Nobody wants to traumatize a child needlessly," Judge Gievers told the Miami Herald.

The third grade retention law was put into place in while Jeb Bush was governor – when Florida became a leader in standardized assessment and before standardized testing in public schools became a national debate.

While standardized test procedures vary greatly across states and even within states, No Child Left Behind mandates that “95 percent of students in a school as a whole must meet or exceed the 'annual measurable objectives' set by the state for a given academic year.”

As 'opting out' becomes an increasingly popular move for parents unhappy with standardized tests and their influence on the curriculum, the decreasing participation has made it more challenging for schools to reach 95 percent passing rate, even when the students are academically capable, as the students in Florida were.

The opt out movement is particularly strong in New York, where in 2015, 21 percent of students enrolled in public schools opted out of the mandatory state exams, quadruple the number that had opted out in 2014. In some Long Island counties, the opt-out rate reached more than 75 percent of students.

For some, opting out has become an act of civil disobedience.

"I don’t think [the opt-out message] gets to the heart of what is really concerning large numbers of people," Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Education Trust, told The Christian Science Monitor.

From her perspective, federally mandated assessments have never been better than they are at present, and addressing the issues that still surround the test is best done through leadership that encourages real learning and not teaching to the test, rather than protesting the concept of standardized tests altogether.

School administrations are generally sympathetic with parental and teacher concerns surrounding standardized tests: that they dictate curricula, take up too much class time, and put unnecessary stress on children.

From the administrative standpoint, the tests present their own set of problems. Despite being standardized, the tests cover too much ground to be useful in assessing an individual student's progress or need for support. Additionally, many raise concerns that the tests cannot fix the inequality they measure.

"More testing has been proven not to be closing those [achievement] gaps," Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a testing-reform group that supports the opt-out movement, told the Monitor. "We don't need to measure [the achievement gap] more, we need to address it."

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