Leon County students will begin taking the Florida Standards Assessment next week. Those tests will be used to grade and evaluate schools, teachers, districts, and students. But not everyone is supportive of how the tests are used. And some parents are opting out of the system. In Leon County, the opt out movement is just getting off the ground.
About 18 Leon County students opted out of the Florida Standards last year—the first time the new test was administered in the state’s public schools. That’s a tiny sampling of the more than 20,000 kids the state says started the exam but didn’t finish it, or didn’t take the test at all. But while a small showing, the Leon County School District says it believes the movement is growing, and it wants to be prepared.
“I think the ways we conduct ourselves in order to express our concerns could be beneficial to the state of education in Florida…but I don’t think they are the tools you can use, says Marie Clair Leman who has three kids in public school.
Wednesday evening's community conversation on testing drew about 20 people—about half were district officials. Still, opt-outers found a sympathetic ear in district superintendent Jackie Pons. For the past decade, Pons has derided the state’s school accountability system which relies heavily on student performance on standardized tests. He’s also criticized the use of those tests for teacher evaluations and student promotion. But make no mistake. Pons does say he’d prefer students at least take the exam—because those who tend to opt out, also tend to be better test takers.
“I feel like we’re the number one majority-minority school district in the state, we’re a high-performing district, we’re an A district," said Pons, recalling a favorite talking point. " And some of the students who don’t end up testing end up being my best students, and I know that. So that’s a selfish thing, I tell you. I’d like to have them in there. But I do understand.”
At stake in these assessments are funding—for schools and districts. Teacher evaluations and pay. Student graduation, promotion or retention. School grades. That’s why many parents are starting to say they’ve had enough of it.
And that’s something Meredith Mears gets. She heads a similar group, Florida Parents Rise, which pushes against the state’s education standards which are based on common core. Mears says she’d like to see the opt out movement reach more low-income and minority families—kids who tend to be hurt more by poor test performance.
“I traveled to a community conversation that superintendent pons had out Crawfordville. There needs to be more of these community conversations in different areas in poor neighborhoods. Because many of these parents aren’t going to come up to Killearn," she said.
Leon schools will begin administering the Florida Standards Assessment next week. And the district says it plans to work with the opt out parents to come up with a best-practices to give principals and teachers on how to address kids who choose not to sit for the exam. But opting out is still risky. Under state law, students in public school are mandated to take the exam. And the state has pushed back against the very idea of opting out. But for those who believe in the issue, it’s a form of silent protest against a system they feel isn’t working.