Three days after a judge ruled state education leaders acted unlawfully when they refused to promote to the fourth grade 14 students who refused to answer questions on the Florida Standards Assessment, Orange County Public Schools has appealed that decision.
OCPS’ appeal argues that the case should not have been tried in Tallahassee but rather in its home circuit court. OCPS is one of six districts involved in the suit; state education leaders and the Hernando County School District also have filed appeals.
Although OCPS and Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) officials declined to comment because the case is pending litigation, representatives of the Opt Out Orlando — a parent-led organization that opposes state-mandated testing — said they expected the appeal.
“(It’s) disappointing but not surprising,” said Sandy Stenoff, one of the three co-founders of The Opt Out Florida Network.
Stenoff believes the FSA test, which plays a role in teacher and school evaluations, forces teachers to adopt narrow class curricula that focus too heavily on test preparation — a situation that she and other parents involved in the movement say detracts from students’ learning.
Florida Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers’ Aug. 26 ruling stems from a lawsuit involving 14 third-grade students in six different Florida school districts. The suit challenged parts of Florida’s third-grade retention law, which districts interpreted as grounds not to promote the students who did not take the FSA third-grade language arts exam.
During the FSA test, the 14 students broke the seal on their exams, signed their names but did not answer any questions. Attorneys representing the students said these actions satisfied the obligatory participation in FSA tests.
Given the lack of a detailed definition of “participation” in Florida statutes, the parents requested their children be given zeroes for the test and granted the option of a teacher-compiled portfolio assessment, (a collection of a student’s work throughout the school year that demonstrates reading proficiency), as proof that their third-grade children were ready for fourth grade.
However, the school districts, with support from the FLDOE, refused to give the students an FSA score and did not budge on their decision.
Giever’s 52-page ruling on the injunctive relief resulted in a partial victory for the Opt-Out Movement. The ruling ultimately ordered the FLDOE to stop “disseminating misinformation that there is no portfolio option available when children do not score level 2” on the test.
Additionally, it ordered Pam Stewart, the Florida Commissioner of Education, as well as the State Board of Education to tell county school boards they must offer students who “minimally participate” in the FSA test the portfolio option. Gievers acknowledged that minimal participation does satisfy the students’ statutory obligation to participate.
ONE TEACHER’S PERSPECTIVE
Karen Castor Dentel, who holds a doctoral degree in education, was a teacher for 25 years and is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. She is upset by the county school boards’ refusal to accept the judge’s ruling, especially because their prior excuses cited bureaucratic procedures.
“The school boards have said their hands are tied for so long,” Castor Dentel said. “(They’ve been) saying they can’t do anything because it’s just the law. Well, here they have their answer, and they can take this result, this judgment, and run with it. … They can make these decisions — their hands are not tied, and if they are using the appeal on a technicality, it’s really disheartening. It’s like, what else? What else do we have to do to make them fight for our kids?”
Castor Dentel started teaching before the first state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was implemented in 1998. Both she and Stenoff say the FSA is used more as a weapon to punish kids, as opposed to a diagnostic tool that can help improve teaching methods. Castor Dentel believes the stress-inducing tests are also unfair to students because every year the tests change and what counts as a passing score is an ever-moving target determined by the FLDOE.
“It was such a pleasure to teach then, and kids enjoyed coming to school,” Castor Dentel said of the time before mandated testing. “The classrooms were not micromanaged like they are now. … Now, every year the tests become more important to the folks in Tallahassee, and it’s become more of a weapon. It wasn’t a diagnostic tool, they weren’t really using it to see what kids know because teachers don’t even get the scores back.”
Castor Dentel misses teaching, she said, but with academic instruction being so focused on test preparation, she finds it wiser to steer clear of the classroom. She also disapproves of the third-grade retention policy the plaintiff parents have been fighting against, suspecting it to be a tactic used by the FLDOE to benefit their own self-interests.
“Kids develop at different rates and there’s nothing magical about third grade,” Castor Dentel said. “Mandatory retention has been used as a method to raise the fourth-grade NAEP score, (the average score of students in a particular grade), because they can artificially raise those scores if you hold kids back from fourth grade who didn’t score as well. And it makes the fourth grade national test look a lot better. So it’s a game, it’s using our kids as political pawns, and I hope that this lawsuit exposes that.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected].