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East County parents sign off on Opt Out movement

With testing season underway, some students are choosing not to take the Florida Standards Assessment.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 6, 2016
Testing will continue for Manatee County students through the end of the school year.
Testing will continue for Manatee County students through the end of the school year.
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As she looked around the fifth-grade classroom at her peers at B.D. Gullett Elementary, Madelyn Myre didn't join the furious scribbling of answers to the English Language Arts assessment test.

Instead, the 10-year-old put her head down on her forearms and closed her eyes for a two-hour nap.

After the test ended, some of her friends asked her why she didn't take the test?

"She told them that they didn't have to take the test either," said Myre's mother, Lisa Lent. "Just because everyone else is doing something, doesn't make it right."

Myre is a participant in the Opt Out Manatee movement, which has been gaining traction throughout the county over the last year. Although opting out means students don't take certain state assessment tests, the Manatee County group, which has 720 parents, community members and other followers on Facebook, concentrates on the Florida Standards Assessment.

The Opt Out movement is a nationwide effort, which has members in 40 counties just in Florida.

Local group members believe the Florida Standards Assessment is aligned with state standards, also known as Common Core standards, and isn't an effective way to measure how much a child has learned throughout the school year.

"This movement is a backlash, because the legislature isn’t listening to anyone," said Pat Barber, president of the teacher's union, the Manatee Education Association. "Parents, educators and community members have all been trying to tell legislatures they have gone too far. And they aren’t listening."

Barber said state-level micro-managing of classrooms, such as telling teachers how much time they should allot to reading each day, is putting extra stress on educators, which doesn't translate well for a positive classroom environment.

"The joy of education has been rung dry," Barber said. "State statutes have to be changed."

Some advocates say an underlying issue that sparked the movement is Common Core itself. Common Core is a more vigorous approach to learning through "higher order thinking skills."

Lent tried to help her daughter with her math homework last year and wasn't able to, because the formula children are using to answer questions and problems, such as multiplication, has changed. 

"My daughter was 9 and I couldn't help her with her homework, " Lent said. "A basic math problem that would have taken a few seconds before now takes 10 minutes. I showed her the way I learned to multiply and she said even if the answer is right, she would get the problem wrong for not solving it the (Common Core) way."

Some East County parents believe the assessments are a method of data collection that doesn't benefit their children.

"I don't want my daughter to be a statistic," said Michelle Lubrino, a parent of a Gullett Elementary student. "I want her to be successful and happy. You know how they say, 'Any given Sunday?' well, I say, 'Any given test day,' because your child may not be feeling well or have test anxiety, and to base their whole academic future on one test isn't a smart move. There are so many facets to each child. Our child is an individual and not a number."

If a child scores below a Level 3 on the FSA reading or math portions, on a scale of one to five, the district considers whether the child should be put in remedial courses.

The school district's Student Progression Plan says the child will be provided with additional diagnostic assessments to identify "the areas of academic need," and the school the child attends will craft an individualized plan to pinpoint areas that need improvement.

Amy Lee, a parent of two Manatee County students and an administrator of the Opt Out Manatee Facebook page, said her son, who attends Palmetto High School, was immediately put in a remedial course the following school year, after falling below the scoring threshold.

"My son has barely passed or has missed the cut on these standardized tests for years," Lee said. "He's a junior this year, and he has been approved to take college-level English class, because of his grades. But because he missed the cut on the FSA, he's simultaneously sitting in an intensive reading class. This system is broken. We have students who demonstrate no red flags in core subjects, but if they take the FSA and don't hit that mark, they immediately receive remediation services the following school year."

All students are required to participate in the test, as is spelled out in Florida Statute Chapter 1008.

"If someone doesn’t participate, they are violating a mandate," said Sandy Riley-Hawkins, director of assessment and research for the Manatee County School District. "Assessments are one more data point to see how well students are doing and how well our curriculum is aligning with the state standards. FSAs are another way to get kids ready for careers and to become active people in our society."

Unless a child stays home from school on a test day, they participate in the test just by signing their name and breaking the seal of the test. 

Students aren't reprimanded by teachers, administrators or other school district employees for not taking the test.

If a teacher asks the student to take the test, they respond with, "No, thank you," which is part of the opt out process described on Opt Out Florida Network's website.

Participation is also linked to funding for school districts, which makes this particular assessment more high stakes than the other annual exams.

Hawkins said federal regulations cite that if a school doesn't meet the 95% participation rate in FSAs, that school won't receive the funding that comes with its overall grade.

"To get a school grade, one of the criteria is to have 95% of your kids participate in that test," Hawkins said. "If a school is eligible for an "A" and that percentage of kids doesn't test, the school won't get that recognition money, which varies, based on the size of the school and other factors."

Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Cynthia Saunders said at this point, no school in the county is at risk for not receiving federal funding because of students opting out of the test.

The school district implements the Sit and Stare policy, which means students remain in the classroom and sit quietly until testing is finished.

Students who minimally participate and don't answer any questions receive an NR2 score, which means there isn't enough information to score the test. FSAs don't count for a portion of students' final grades, but the test measures whether students in certain grade levels are ready to advance to the next grade.

Parents cite state statute 1008, saying the district shouldn't hold a child back from advancing to the next grade level because they didn't receive at least a 3 score on an assessment test.

The statute reads: "The statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion and that additional evaluations, portfolio reviews, and assessments are available to the child to assist parents and the school district in knowing when a child is reading at or above grade level and ready for grade promotion."

Federal law allows students to submit portfolios of their work, which demonstrate that they are proficient in the material learned in that grade level.

The portfolio is one of various good cause exemptions that provide alternatives for student promotion if students didn't take the FSA.

For Lubrino, a Long Island native who moved to East County about two years ago, the issue isn't whether her daughter should be tested.

She's an advocate for teachers testing students’ knowledge to gauge how much they have learned. She believes too much is tied to one test, the FSA.

"Opting out isn’t about making things easier for children. Our daughter isn't refusing to answer questions because it's a hard test and we're trying not to put her in a difficult situation. This isn't about making the world easy. Teachers aren't even able to see which problems the students get wrong, so how can the students learn from that? These tests are designed to evaluate teachers, schools and districts, not our students." — Michelle Lubrino, parent of B.D. Gullett Elementary student



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