Manatee third-graders who refuse state testing can’t go to fourth grade

Cynthia Saunders, left, deputy superintendent, poses at the 30th annual Migrant Education awards ceremony at Palmetto High School in this file photo.
Cynthia Saunders, left, deputy superintendent, poses at the 30th annual Migrant Education awards ceremony at Palmetto High School in this file photo.

Third-grade students who refused to take the state-mandated English Language Arts exam and refuse to take a state-approved equivalency test will not be able to move on to fourth grade, according to district officials.

The issue of “opting out” of third-grade Florida Standards Assessments has bubbled up to the surface again after the state released third-grade scores last week. In Florida, students must score a Level 2 or higher on a scale of one to five to move on to fourth grade. Students who score a Level 1 are in danger of repeating third grade.

A little more than 1,200, or about 29 percent, of the 4,186 Manatee County third-grade students who took the FSA scored a Level 1, according to state data released last week.

31 The number of Manatee students who have no score on the state test

There are ways for students who score a Level 1 to be promoted to fourth grade, but there’s no way to promote students who refuse to take the test.

“You have to take a test and receive a score to qualify for good cause,” said Cynthia Saunders, Manatee schools deputy superintendent of instruction.

Thirty-one students in Manatee County have no test score at this point, Saunders said. Some of those students were legitimately sick and absent on the test day, but a number of the students in that category refused to take the test. Some parents opted out of the tests as a measure of civil disobedience, to show the state they are upset with testing and don’t want their students’ progress to be based on a test score.

When asked Wednesday, officials with the Florida Department of Education pointed to language in state statutes about testing, which says participation in testing is mandatory, and outline the same good-cause promotion steps the school district laid out.

Students who failed the FSA and fall under exceptional student education programs, called ESE, and students who don’t speak English are able to be moved onto fourth grade without taking another test, Saunders said. The majority of Manatee County’s Level 1 scores are those types of students.

The rest of the students who scored a Level 1 or who don’t have a score received a form letter from the district last week, informing parents the student was scheduled to take the Stanford Achievement Test 10, or the SAT 10, on June 1. If students take and pass the SAT 10, a state-approved test, they can move on to fourth grade.

Other options are available for students who fail the FSA or the SAT 10, Saunders said. Those options include a summer school session before a retake of the SAT 10 and a standards-based portfolio that is prescribed by the state.

“None of this is new,” she said.

If a student has no FSA score and refused to take the SAT, they don’t qualify to be promoted through the portfolio based on state statutes, Saunders said.

“They will be retained in third grade,” she said.

The district and school board have received backlash over the issue, with parents saying the district is cherry-picking from the statute. Candice Vice said her third-grade son has gotten nothing but rave reviews from teachers but is going to be held back. This week, she asked the school board and the district to look at the statute again.

“It’s not right, it’s not fair,” Vice told the board. “He doesn’t need any further testing to say he is ready for fourth grade.”

I know your fight is not with us, but we are required to follow rules.

Superintendent Diana Greene responding to a parent email

Sarah Ismail has also asked the district to re-look at the policy. She opted her son out of the third-grade testing and said he never performs well on tests because of anxiety. She said her son reads on a fourth-grade level and performs at or above grade level in the classroom. She said she trusts her son’s teacher to determine whether her son should go to fourth grade.

“I trust her teaching and evaluations far more than I would trust anyone's test to determine my child's mastery of 3rd grade material,” she wrote recently to Superintendent Diana Greene and other district officials. “This threat of retention is strictly based on my choice as his parent to not have him participate in the FSA or SAT 10.”

Saunders said the district understands parents’ concerns and why they may want to skip the state tests, but that doesn’t change what the district is and isn’t allowed to do.

“We understand, but we’re bound by the requirements,” she said.

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney