MANATEE -- The number of students and families who oppose high-stakes state-mandated tests by "opting out" appears to be growing in Manatee County.
The trend follows a growing movement in the state of Florida and across the nation, where parents are beginning to push back against state legislators forcing newer and harder tests -- aligned with the controversial Common Core standards -- on students. No formal numbers are available yet for this year's opt-out movement, as testing just began last week.
Calling their choice to opt out or minimally participate an act of civil disobedience, students are breaking the seal of the Florida Standards Assessments, signing their name and then pushing the test away and refusing to answer questions. To the state, that shows the student was actively there for the test period but refused to answer the questions, earning the student a score of "NR2," or not reported.
A growing number of parents say they oppose the high-stakes nature of the test, feel the tests do little to enhance their children's learning and think the time could be better spent with a teacher. Instead of keeping the children home from school and penalizing the school from not testing enough students, parents say the opt-out method is the best way to send a message to the state that the tests are unacceptable.
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"Our educational system is broken," said Amy Lee, parent of an eighth-grader and a 10th-grader in Manatee County who opted out of state tests for the first time last week. "It is the parents who will end up driving change through this act of civil disobedience. We will no longer remain silent."
Lee is a vocal supporter of opting out of the tests, saying she has seen support for the movement grow this year. She is an administrator of the "Opt Out Manatee" Facebook page, which helps parents in Manatee County, and beyond, learn about the process to opt out. Parents are able to share questions, concerns and news about their experience on the page.
The state Department of Education has maintained throughout the process of rolling out new exams that participation in the test is mandatory. More than 20,000 exams ended up without a score in 2015, compared to about 5,500 state exams in 2014. It's unclear whether that number will grow this year, and it's unclear whether state officials will take any action if the numbers do continue to grow.
With just a week of testing underway, it's hard for Manatee County officials to tell how many students have chosen to minimally participate so far, Sandy Riley-Hawkins, the district's director of assessment and research, said Friday.
Since a lot of the discussion and communication about opting out happens at the school level, Riley-Hawkins said she is not sure if there are more than last year, adding that the state testing is just one piece of data the district looks at when assessing student achievement. The ultimate goal, regardless of whether the parents have their children take the test, is providing support, she said.
"We always want to work together as a community and be able to support the teachers and the parents and the kids," Riley-Hawkins said.
'Sit and stare' policy
Students who choose to opt out in Manatee County must "sit and stare" after they break the seal of the test and sign their names. That can mean up to two hours in a room, doing nothing, as the district doesn't allow the students who opt out or finish their tests early to read or do other work. Some parents are fighting that by signing out their children from school after the test window starts.
But sometimes, parents' schedules can make that a bit difficult. On Monday, parent Sarah Ismail was unable to pick up her 12-year-old son Karem from Buffalo Creek Middle School during his writing exam because of a doctor's appointment.
"It was boring for him. He read three stories and took a nap after," Ismail said, adding that she expects to be able to sign him out of school for the remainder of the testing period.
Ismail said her son has horrible test anxiety and often scores lower on the state tests than his actual ability because of it. Ismail's family opposes the decision-making based around the state test, including putting students into remediation classes based on their test scores. Ismail said the most important grades to her are the ones on her son's report cards, not on the state tests.
Karem was nervous about opting out of the test, Ismail said. The family did not opt out last year, the first year of the new test.
"He was scared at the beginning, he doesn't want to be punished and he doesn't want to break the rules in school," she said.
Ismail reassured him that opting out does not affect the teacher or the school. Only students who take the test fully and receive an actual score will be included in teacher's evaluations and the school grade. That make Karem feel better about opting out.
Ismail's third-grade son, 9-year-old Yazid, will also opt out of state tests. His tests don't begin until after the spring break, Ismail said.
Lisa Hotaling's fifth-grade daughter at McNeal Elementary also had to sit and stare this week as Hotaling was not able to pick her up and dismiss her from the testing room, Hotaling said.
"She said she doodled on the scratch paper they gave her and wrote an essay on 'Why the FSA is stupid,'" Hotaling said. "She told me she wrote an introductory paragraph, two reasons why the test is flawed and a conclusion, so clearly her ability to write an essay is not impaired."
A celebration of disobedience
This year is also the first time Christine Wright's fourth-grade son William has opted out. Last year, the family lived full-time in Massachusetts and William took the test. The family is spending the winter at their condo on Anna Maria Island, and it was Wright's plan all along to have her son opt out of the state tests in Florida, since they plan to be back in Massachusetts next year. She's seen the opt-out movement grow in Massachusetts this year, as she monitors social media pages from her hometown.
"I do think that these tests are worthless, punitive, unproven and unresearched," Wright said.
William was sick last week for the first round of writing tests at school, but Wright said either she or her husband will have the flexibility to dismiss him from school when he has to sit for the retake.
And while some families are new to opting out, for others, it's standard operating procedure.
Lisa Lent's fifth-grade daughter opted out of the tests at Gullett Elementary School last year as well, she said. Lent was unable to pick her daughter up during testing so she put her head down on her desk and took a nap.
Lent said she feels the education system is broken and it setting kids up for failure.
"I cannot and will not allow my child to be a ploy in this. This high stakes testing needs to be stopped," Lent said.
Stacey Cline opted her son out of tests last year, and did so last week as well. Cline said it was pretty painless to have her son opt out at Haile Middle School, especially because she provided notice to the school beforehand of her intentions as a courtesy.
Cline said too many decisions are based on the tests and it doesn't help the students, teachers or schools.
"I asked the principal specifically the start time and when he needed to be returned to class. He started at 9:20. I gave him about a half an hour to minimally participate, just in case there were delays in the start time," Cline said. "By the time we walked out of school and got home, he only had an hour before he needed to be back for third period at 11:00. Unfortunately, I had to go to work or we would have spent that hour celebrating his bravery by going out to breakfast."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.