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Why Florida Parents Want To Opt Their Kids Out Of State Tests

Apr 21, 2014

Gov. Rick Scott greets students at West Tampa's Graham Elementary School last week.
Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Last week Gov. Rick Scott delivered an $8.5 million check to Hillsborough County schools earning good marks on the state’s grading formula.

Those grades depend a lot on student FCAT scores. So Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia took a moment pump up students at West Tampa’s Graham Elementary School before this week's testing.

"Next week you’re going to have an opportunity to do great again, right?" Elia asked.

"Yeeesssss," the kids responded.

"Who’s gonna do great?" Elia asked.

She got silence in response.

"You better all have your hands up," another teacher cut in, drawing laughs from the room.

Florida students are taking FCAT math, reading and writing exams for the final time this year. The test started as a way to measure student progress. But anger with FCAT has grown as state policies added more consequences to the test scores.

Some parents say the pressure is too much. That one bad day testing could have long-term consequences. A small group of parents are pulling their kids out of the FCAT and encouraging other parents to follow.

Cindy Hamilton is one of them. Her son scored a 1 on the third grade FCAT reading exam and could have been retained if he were in third grade now.

"If at that time, when he was taking FCAT, he would have been held back," Hamilton said. "It would have defined him as a student. And it could have changed his life.”

Now, he's an A and B student at the University of Central Florida. But the experience is why Hamilton was a co-founder of Opt Out Orlando.

The group coaches and supports parents who want to withhold their kids from the FCAT. Hamilton said parents have more choices than just keeping kids home during the testing period -- which can last three weeks.

“There are multiple ways to opt out," she said. "A lot of people think you just don’t show up for the test, but you can keep your child home for the entire testing window.

"You can refuse the test…or you can request that your student goes to school and is marked present but goes to participate in alternative activities from testing."

The state Department of Education said Florida law doesn’t allow parents to opt out of the exam.

The law requires third grade students to meet state goals on a reading exam before moving to fourth grade. And students must pass the tenth grade reading exam in order to graduate high school.

But the law also provides alternatives to the exam. Third graders can use a classwork portfolio instead of an FCAT score. And tenth graders can swap an ACT or SAT score – if high enough – for the FCAT.

Hamilton said parents need to talk to the principal and school district about their choices.

Gov. Rick Scott presented Hillsborough schools with an $8.5 million check. Schools which earned an A on the state report card or significantly improved their grade earned a $100 bonus per student. School grades are largely based on FCAT scores.
Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Hillsborough County schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the test results are valuable for schools and districts. He said it's unusual parents approach the district wanted to hold their children out from testing.

"I think we would respond immediately and say that’s probably not a good idea for your child," Hegarty said. "It gives us a lot of valuable information that helps us teach.

"I don’t think there’s really any way that we could force a parent to do something like that and I’m sure that it does happen occasionally, but I think it’s pretty rare.”

Neither the state nor most school districts track how many students officially opt out. Some parents don’t announce their intentions.

Statewide, more than 98 percent of students take the FCAT each year. And opt outs are just a fraction of those who don’t.

But advocates want more to join them.

They’re pushing to let parents of disabled children to opt out of the state exam.

And they’re watching a state like New York, where parents are objecting to new, more difficult exams tied to Common Core. Parents across the state have protested the new exams and advocates estimate more than 33,000 chose not to take the exam.

New York advocates even produced a how-to video.

“Though Regents Exams required for graduation should not be refused," the video advises, "grades three through eight ELA, math and science exams can be refused without consequence to your child, the classroom teacher or the school. Yes, you can refuse the tests.”

Other states with Common Core exams, such as Kentucky, have seen less resistance to the new exams.

A similar exam is coming to Florida next year.

And Common Core opponents like Laura Zorc want to keep their kids from taking the test.

"This is another way to protect our kids," she said. "We’re not really for sure where our kids’ information will end up, so we just choose to opt them out. It’s just another measure of protection that we want.”

Common Core opponents are also asking lawmakers to introduce a bill allowing parents to opt their kids out.

Lawmakers have shown no desire so far to weaken the standards or state testing requirements.