Parent, educator angst mounts over student testing amid COVID in Florida

Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | April 1, 2021

Thousands of Florida parents kept their children home and studying online this school year to limit their potential exposure to the coronavirus.

So news that the state will administer its usual series of standardized tests this spring and wants all students to sit for the exams — even those who have avoided being on campus — has left many of those same parents puzzled, angry and worried.

“I’ve really never felt more backed into a corner as a parent,” said Hope McCarthy, an Orange County mother with three children in public schools. “We’re still wrestling with it. I don’t see an option. I hate that.”

She kept her three children home mostly because her 12-year-old has Down syndrome and significant medical problems, making the girl at high risk should she contract COVID-19. She and her husband have decided that daughter and her 9-year-old son won’t go to school to test, but they think their older daughter may need to because they fear academic fallout if the ninth grader does not.

Local and state educators have said they cannot force parents, who could choose remote learning for their children this year because of the pandemic, to bring kids to school for state testing. Districts will begin administering the exams Monday, and testing runs into May.

But the exams — Florida Standards Assessments, state end-of-course exams and state science tests — have consequences in certain grades and subjects, as by state law they are tied to promotion to fourth grade, high school graduation and final grades in certain middle and high school classes. So students who skip the exams could be issued incompletes in those courses, retained in third grade or denied a diploma.

School board members, superintendents and education advocates have been pushing the state to waive the consequences tied to testing for 2021, concerned not only for students who will not test but for all students whose education mighthave been hurt by pandemic-related challenges.

“Hold them harmless,” said Linda Cuthbert, chairman of the Volusia County School Board, during a recent press conference. Test results, she added, should be used only ”to determine strength and weakness, gains and gaps.”

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has said testing this year will provide “critical” information on what students have learned — or failed to grasp — in a school year upended by the pandemic, guiding schools on how best to help them in the coming year.

He wants as many students as possible to test and says the state has safely administered more than 800,000 standardized tests since last summer. Still, he has acknowledged fewer students likely will test this year.

Corcoran also has said the decision about how to use the test results will be made with “compassion and grace,” a message he repeated during a Wednesday press conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“We’re going to take care of our students,” he said, without providing specifics.

The decision, he added, could be made in the next week or two.

Lawmakers step in

Some lawmakers in the Florida Senate have taken up the call, too, advancing a bill that would eliminate testing consequences this year.

“We still want to have assessments, we still want to have the tests, but we don’t want to have consequences, as we heard over and over from the school boards,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, chairman of the education committee, which unanimously passed the bill Tuesday.

Other lawmakers have said they prefer Corcoran to make the call for this year rather than alter state law. DeSantis signaled Wednesday that would happen. “Stay tuned,” he said when a reporter asked about testing consequences.

Last year, DeSantis and Corcoran used such orders to cancel the spring 2020 tests and waive test-based decisions. Typically, the test scores are used to make academic decisions for students, to help evaluate teachers and to determine a school’s A-to-F grade from the state.

State law does not allow the exams to be given remotely, so students must be on their campuses to test. But because of the pandemic, about 32% of the state’s nearly 2.8 million students are studying online now, according to the education department.

When school districts began sending out messages about spring testing, the Florida Opt Out Network, which is opposed to the state’s high-stakes tests, got thousands of new members seeking information about skipping exams and expressing their frustration about testing during the pandemic.

“If I’m going to send them in for testing, I might as well send them in for classes,” said LaShosha Shavers, who has a third and fourth grader in an Orange elementary school.

Though she’s a dean at a county middle school and has had to work in person, Shavers said she hasn’t been comfortable enough to have her two daughters on campus. She’s hired someone to be at home with them during the day while they take their classes online, and she doesn’t plan to alter that for testing.

“They’ve decided what’s best for the state,” she said. “I’m going to do what’s best for me as a parent.”

Her third grader, she said, should not face retention if she doesn’t take the FSA next month.

“I’m not really concerned with her academically. She’s on point,” Shavers said.

State law says third graders need a certain score on FSA reading to move to fourth grade, though they are exemptions and other ways to advance. The problem is the other options, such as a portfolio of classroom work, by law can be used only after a child has attempted the FSA, school officials said, so a child who doesn’t come to school to take the test isn’t eligible.

“It is still a fact that you cannot go and force a parent to bring their child to school,” said Superintendent Barbara Jenkins at a recent Orange County School Board meeting.

In a “very unusual year,” Jenkins said, the state should waive the testing rules and allow third graders who don’t test to be promoted based on portfolios and do away with other test-based consequences, too.

“We have advocated there should be no penalties,” she said.

A diploma at stake?

In addition to third graders, school leaders also worry about high school seniors who haven’t yet passed one of the two state exams needed for a diploma — the algebra 1 exam and the 10th-grade language arts exam.

Last year, when the state canceled tests and waived those rules, more than 13,000 seniors, or about 7% of the class of 2020′s more than 188,000 students, graduated without the usually required tests.

Students in middle school or high school classes with state end-of-course exams — algebra, biology, civics, geometry and U.S. history — have 30% of their course grade riding on their test score. If they skip the test, their school district will hold off on issuing a final grade until they take it.

The state offers those exams several times a year, so students could take the exam at a later time, though they might be at a disadvantage testing months after they’ve finished the class.

McCarthy’s 14-year-old is enrolled in biology this year, one reason her parents might have her test, despite their worries about the health risks to their middle child. She said school officials seem sympathetic.

“I know they feel for us. Their hands are tied, too,” McCarthy said.

“We’re very respectful of the decisions of our parents,” said Kelly Thompson, director of research and accountability for the Seminole County school district. “Unfortunately districts do not have the authority to override state statuary requirements.”

So educators want the state to act, just as parents do. “We’re still hopeful,” Thompson said. “It’s just a lot of pressure on families and our teachers and our schools while we wait.”

News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Photo: Many parents whose children are studying online this year do not want to bring them to campus to take state exams this spring. State testing begins next week in Central Florida. A sign posted at a Seminole County school during the 2015 testing season.(Leslie Postal/Orlando Sentinel) (Leslie Postal)

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