By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
It was about a month ago that Lee County became the first school district in the state to opt-out of state mandated testing and assessments. Even though the county quickly reversed its decision, school boards across the state have begun wrestling with the issue themselves.
This week alone several local school boards held serious discussions on the issue of high-stakes and high-frequency testing, which critics say improperly penalizes students and takes up valuable classroom instruction time. However, no concrete action has been taken. Most school boards are wary of being penalized by the state for being non-compliant.
According to Florida TODAY, In Brevard County, the school board chairman, Bob White, “called on school board members Tuesday to lobby State Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.”
Brevard School Board members, teachers and parents heaped criticism on Florida’s standardized academic-testing culture Tuesday, complaining that state legislators have created an onerous, ineffective mess.
“For this education sabotage to stop, there has to be a change in Tallahassee. And I mean a big, big change in Tallahassee,” School Board member Barbara Murray said, generating applause.
The debate comes as Common Core testing opposition is gaining visibility across the Sunshine State. Two weeks ago, the Lee County school district voted 3-2 to opt out of statewide standardized testing — the first board in Florida to do so.
In Southwest Florida, both Charlotte and Collier Counties also had discussions this week.
Charlotte County school board members spoke about the issue for nearly an hour Tuesday morning during a workshop meeting.
It was the county’s first public discussion about the matter.
The board took no direct action towards opting out, as school board chairman Ian Vincent says there are still uncertainties that would come with the decision.
“We all kind of had an understanding that there would be some unforeseen ramifications, but we really wanted to the superintendent to spell out what it would mean if we decided to go down that path,” Vincent told WINK News.
Vincent says the board plans to draft a statement on the matter to send to leaders in Tallahassee, and that the board will go over the details at their next workshop in two weeks.
Collier will most likely not follow Lee’s course in opting out of state standardized testing until the consequences are better known.
School board members, candidates and parents agree change is needed, but they disagree with the Lee County School Board’s decision to opt out.
“That discussion has been going on in Collier County, too, but I don’t want to do what they (Lee school board) did,” said newly re-elected board member Roy Terry III. “I’d like to have a plan about what we’re going to do before we do it.”
As ripples caused by the Lee school board’s decision to opt out of statewide, standardized testing radiate across Florida and the country, local leaders are pondering the potential effects. These range from the loss of state funding for the districts to seniors being unqualified for graduation.
The day after Brevard, Collier and Charlotte County had discussions, Palm Beach school board members weighed in.
Palm Beach School Board members hate high-stakes testing, but not enough to break the law.
School Board members discussed a variety of options Wednesday they could take to oppose high-stakes testing, including holding parent meetings, lobbying legislators and passing a resolution opposing the use of state testing to penalize students and teachers.
But they stopped short of saying they won’t administer the tests this year, a proposal they floated last month after the School Board in Lee County discussed opting out. The Lee County board initially supported the anti-test stance, even though state officials said it’s against the law and would affect funding, student grades, graduation and eligibility for athletics. The Lee board reversed itself earlier this month.
“It’s pretty clear we don’t want to do anything that will violate the law and put our students, parents and teachers in jeopardy,” said School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw.
Last week, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho—who runs one of the biggest school districts in the country and was awarded National Superintendent of the Year– released a statement calling for a delay in administering new high-stakes standardized tests across Florida.
However, as most districts weigh their options about how to move forward without being seriously penalized, one teacher took action alone.
In Alachua County, a kindergarten teacher has decided to risk her job by refusing to administer state testing to her students.
Susan Bowles, 59, has 26 years of education experience and is currently teaching kindergarten at Chiles Elementary.
Testing of kindergarten students has increased over the years, she said, but it reached a crescendo for her this year when one of the tests moved online.
The FAIR, a diagnostic test that predicts students’ success in reading, is administered to all public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade, per state law, three times a year.
…The main issue for Bowles, and others, is the loss of instructional time after administering these tests — a total of six weeks, in fact.
And that’s just the state- and district-mandated testing, which doesn’t include the math and reading benchmark tests that kindergartners must take several times a year, along with the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener, a lengthy checklist that measures development and effectiveness of early education.
On top of that, the first FAIR test must be administered within the first 30 days of the school year.
As this issue continues to generate steam in counties across the country, experts say this could become a heated election topic that poses more challenges for Gov. Rick Scott than for his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist.
Observers say it could present a challenge for Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
To win on Nov. 4, Scott must rally an active and vocal part of his base: tea party members who want to eviscerate the new standards. But he’s also vying for votes from moderate Republicans who support the Common Core standards. And he’s keenly aware that former Gov. Jeb Bush has been a powerful driving force behind the standards’ success.
Democratic candidate Charlie Crist has embraced the Common Core but is less likely to face pushback for his position. Although some Democrats believe the benchmarks will stifle creativity in the classroom, most support the concept.
“Gov. Scott is straddling this issue as best he can,” said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, adding that Common Core could make a difference in a close race.
Given that Lee County reversed its decision, the issue of whether Scott would penalize counties for not complying with state law, and whether he would lose support from conservative activists, is not known.
However, because counties are being cagey about whether they want to move forward with anything like a testing opt-out, it remains to be seen whether Scott will be forced to deal with this issue in any substantive way before November.