In a remarkable letter to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, the influential big three of the Florida Senate asked for clarity regarding parents’ desire to opt their children out of mandatory state testing. In a letter dated January 13, 2015, Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) and Sen. John Legg (R-Lutz) asked the following of Stewart:
…..as mentioned in both committee meetings, senators are being approached by educators and parents about “opting out” of statewide, standardized or state-required local assessments, or both. In fact, there are multiple websites that purport to interpret legal requirements and subsequently provide parents and students with guidance and documentation as to how to “opt out.” If we correctly understand your testimony, you stated that student participation in statewide, standardized and state-required local assessments is mandatory for all students unless specifically exempted by statute. To clarify “opt out” questions and concerns, please provide, by January 26, 2015, itemized responses to the following questions:
1) Under what circumstances is it lawful for students to be exempted from either statewide, standardized assessments or state-required local assessments? Under what circumstances it is lawful for students to be exempted from district-mandated, district-selected assessments?
2) What differences, if any, exist in lawful, allowable exemptions between those exemptions pertaining to statewide, standardized assessments, state-required local assessments, and any exemptions from district-mandated, district-selected assessments which are not in response to state mandates? Please explain.
3) What pupil progression or other consequences, if any, will apply to students if they or their parents “opt out” of statewide, standardized assessments or state-required local assessments? For example, could choosing not to participate in required assessments impact a student’s promotion to the next grade level, affect the student’s ability to earn course credit or graduate with a standard diploma, impede the student’s access to accelerated course or school choice options, affect the student’s access to extracurricular activities, or impact the student’s grade point average calculations? If so, how would those consequences compare between students that “opt out” and their colleagues that participate in the assessments?
4) What professional practices or other consequences, if any, may apply to educators (e.g., teachers, administrators, counselors, superintendents) if they encourage, allow, or fail to report “opt out” practices or instances? What obligations do educators have to inform their district and the department of “opt out” practices or instances about which they are aware?
5) What funding, school or district grade, or other consequences, if any, will apply to schools or districts if they encourage, allow, or fail to report “opt out” practices or instances? What obligations do schools and districts have to inform the department of “opt out” practices or instances about which they are aware? To what extent does the department consider allowing or failing to report “opt out” practices or instances to be a test integrity or security issue?
6) What written, formal guidance is the department providing, or has the department provided, to school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and students of all consequences associated with assessment “opt out” or non-participation practices or instances?
Embolden print mine.
Three days after Stewart received the letter, United Opt-Out National held their annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale. From Carla Scoon Reid in Education Week:
The four-day event, which began Friday, includes discussion topics ranging from civil disobedience to organizing, which may mean the upcoming student-assessment season could be a rocky one. Last year, United Opt Out National leaders published “An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution” as a guide to those seeking to form an opt-out group or lead a “resistance.”
Holding the conference in Florida also shows how much traction the opt-out movement has gained in the Sunshine State. The Lee County (Fla.) School Board garnered national attention after it voted to pull out from all state-mandated testing last year. While the board quickly reversed its decision, the controversy may have fueled opt-out efforts in Florida. According to a story in the Sun-Sentinel, parents and educators have founded opt-out groups in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to advise parents how to bypass state testing this spring.
Cindy Hamilton, a co-founder of Orlando Opt Out, told the newspaper that in the past four months 24 opt-out groups have been established.
“We want our classrooms back, we want our teachers to be given back their autonomy,” she said”
There’s clearly a subtle shot across the bow in the letter for public education professionals by referencing “professional practices” along with “consequences.” There are many current Florida teachers active in the Opt-Out community. The republican-dominated legislature doesn’t want to face any teachers in the public domain as New York teacher, Jia Lee. Writes Paula Bolyard in the influential conservative website, PJMedia:
On Wednesday Jia Lee, a teacher at The Earth School in New York City, testified at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about reforming the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Lee, a fifth grade special education teacher, told the committee, chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), that over 50% of the parents at The Earth School refused to allow their children to take the Common Core aligned English/Language Arts and Math tests and said her school was not alone.
“Last year,” Lee told the senators, ”I decided that I am obligated and accountable to my students and families, and that is why, as a conscientious objector, I will not administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place.”
She said that parents who complain about high-stakes testing have been accused of “coddling.” She challenged that assumption, saying that the focus on testing has taken time and resources away from the arts, social studies, and physical education.
Instead of focusing on testing, Lee said, classrooms should emphasize “the importance of fostering learning environments that value a culture of trust, diversity, and teacher autonomy.”
Lee joins other teachers in New York City who object to “market-based education reform” and are refusing to administer high stakes tests as an “act of conscience.” There is also a growing opt-out movement throughout the country that encourages parents to refuse to allow their children to take Common Core and other high stakes tests. Parents and teachers object to the testing for a wide variety of reasons. Nearly everyone thinks too much classroom time is devoted to testing and test preparation. And while parents are concerned about data collection related to the tests and the testing anxiety their children experience, teachers often object to having the tests tied to their performance evaluations as well as the corporate influence in test development and in the adoption of the Common Core standards.
No such testimony would ever be heard in a the republican-dominated legislature in Florida. Such dissent is indeed being signaled that it won’t be tolerated in the letter to Stewart. The disconnect between such a hearing taking place in the republican controlled senate in Washington and the one controlled by republicans in Tallahassee is astonishing. But the tone of the letter to Stewart may indicate that even they may be re-thinking that telling parents that they will do what they are told on testing after years of blather of about wanting them to have choice.