It’s the fifth season of the year in Florida: testing season. And millions of Florida’s public school students, from third grade through 12th are preparing to take the Florida Standards Assessment, end of course exams and the FCAT (yes, parts of it remain in effect). The test has drawn scorn from parents, teachers, school administrators even lawmakers—yet it remains the main measure of how schools and districts are graded, kids promoted, and teachers evaluated. Some parents and kids are protesting -- choosing a form of civil disobedience by opting out.
About 20 people have come out for one of the Leon County School District’s Community Conversations. At least a quarter of them are school district officials. Last year, 18 Leon county students opted out of taking the Florida Standards Assessment. There are more than 1.7 million students who take state assessments.
State: No Such Thing As Opting Out
Technically, there’s no such thing as “opting out” of Florida’s standardized tests. State law mandates all public schools students take the exams. The state doesn’t keep track of opt outs. It does use a series of codes to record tests that ended up without a score, and that could be for a range of reasons. One of those, NR2 is used when tests are incomplete, a popular move for opt outers. The Orlando Sentinel reported there were 20,000 of those exams last year, up from 5,500 in 2014. It’s a national trend. According to FairTest.org, New York led the nation with more than 240,000 d kids refusing exams. Louisiana recorded five thousand. Opt Out proponents like Orlando’s Cindy Hamilton say despite small numbers overall, the movement is growing:
“We’re here to protest. Protest isn’t supposed to be comfortable. This is civil disobedience. It’s protest. We’re here to fight for something. We’re here to fight against something," she said.
She claims some school districts are throwing up firewalls to block kids from trying to escape the exam.
The Opt Out Florida network links local groups. And it’s come out with a detailed how-to guide to opting out of the Florida Standards Assessment. The lengths families will go to protest the exam is intense—from staying home throughout the testing period, to breaking the seal on the exam, but not filling it out. But as Opt Out Leon’s Beth Overholt notes, it’s also not without risks.
“A lot of kids opt out by keeping your kids at home. Then you run into the truancy issue where it’s the secret handshake …it should be a little more clear.”
Anything the state deems as an excessive absence could end up with a family having to fight it out in court. And because there’s technically no such thing as opting out. parent Kelly Hartsfield says she ran into confusion from teachers her childrens’ schools.
“I still had to go pick up my kids because they wouldn’t provide any sort of alternate environment for them, and last year there was no issue.”
Leon Reaches Out
Leon County School Superintendent Jackie Pons has long derided the way Florida uses standardized tests to grade schools and districts—and more recently, teachers. And he’s no fan of the Florida Standards Assessment. Pons says he wants to work with opt out parents to make sure there’s a common message for principals and teachers to handle families that want to opt out. But he admits, he’d prefer they take the test.
“Some of the students who don’t end up testing are some of my best students you know? I know that. That’s sort of a selfish thing I would tell you. I’d like to have them in there. I’d say that. I’m being totally honest with you. But I do understand.”
Schools, districts and teachers are judged and rated based largely on those assessments. Students can be promoted or retained based on their performance. Good scores yields more money. So districts have an incentive to test. But it’s that same emphasis on testing that’s frustrated parents. Still, the movement forges on. Whether it will grow will depend. Since there’s no such thing as opting out, come later this Spring when scores come back, education watchers will be counting the number of codes like “NR2 and NT” which could suggest whether a kid opted out of the exam.