Justice for opt-out movement

Students at Mills Elementary School wait for their ride on the last day of the 2014-15 school year.
Students at Mills Elementary School wait for their ride on the last day of the 2014-15 school year. Bradenton Herald

Parent advocates of the opt-out movement — instructing their third-grade children to avoid taking the state’s standardized reading test, although a passing grade secures promotion to the fourth grade — now have a forceful ally. A judge legitimized their opt-out position by ruling school districts cannot refuse to promote third-graders into fourth grade simply because they only wrote their names on the test and did not answer any questions.

The fact that those students broke the seal on the test and wrote their names constitutes “participation” as required by a vague state law that does not clearly define what that meant.

Furthermore, Judge Karen Gievers also decreed a poor score on the reading test is not reason enough to deny grade advancement, instructing educators to consider classroom grades and teacher evaluations. Those two elements comprise a “portfolio” of a student’s work.

Her decision comes on a lawsuit brought by parents challenging a state statute adopted under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, one of his signature initiatives. Overall, his so-called education reform policies focused on privatization via public charter schools operating on taxpayer money. Bush’s overbearing requirement of a passing grade on the third-grade reading test became a national model copied by 15 other states, though buyer’s remorse has been creeping into the harsh policy.

The goal is admirable — having students reading to learn rather than learning to read by the end of third grade. That’s the focus of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Manatee and Sarasota counties, a broad community-wide effort to raise language skills. Research shows the inability to read on grade level by the end of third grade leads to lasting negative life consequences. The state’s route to achieving that goal, however, is fraught with negative consequences.

After the 2003 enactment of that law, the Legislature added exemptions to promotion into the fourth grade — the portfolio option, a passing grade on an alternate test and additional exceptions. That removed complete reliance on a one-day test for grade advancement, which reflected the state’s oppressive obsession with standardized exams. Thousands of third-graders are held back annually while a far greater number advance via exemption.

Third-graders in six Florida counties faced grade retention despite proof they could read at or above grade level. Parents sued and successfully argued that the portfolio option was denied in those six school districts. The judge called the districts’ denial of the statutory alternatives an “illegal refusal.”

Superintendents defended retention by saying the state Department of Education indicated a test score was required. But Gievers said the opt-out students should have been given zeros on the tests, thus giving families the opportunity to present student portfolios among other statutory requirements.

The Manatee County School District wisely followed state law and allowed the performance portfolio option.

Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene expressed anger about the DOE’s confusing and confounding statements on the Florida Standards Assessments after the state released scores several months ago. In a message to the district, the agency cited state statutes about mandatory participation in testing. Gievers’ ruling, on an emergency injunction, confirmed minimal participation is permissible under the imprecise law.

A full trial has yet to be conducted, but the injunction decision does bring vital clarity to the law for now. Though we’re not legal experts, the ruling does appear to be on solid ground given the judge’s explicit explanations. But the DOE and several school districts have filed appeals of the decision, and the State Board of Education called for legislative revisions to third-grade retention policies.

Manatee County’s opt-out movement and others across the state gained steam in 2015 and continues to be a strong force for change with thousands upon thousands of families participating. Their message is crystal clear, a message that school boards, superintendents, educators and others have been sending to Tallahassee for years: Scale back the nightmarish number of high-stakes and high-stress standardized exams and quit applying excessive pressure on teachers to teach to the test in order to raise student scores, school rankings and instructor ratings.

The Legislature is so hooked on these so-called accountability measures that they’re deaf and blind to the reasonable opposition.

Teachers should have the authority to evaluate students since they interact with them daily. A portfolio of work should be the gold standard of student achievement, far more telling than a one-day, pressure-packed test. The opt-out movement now has reason to grow even stronger thanks to Gievers’ ruling.