Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Florida Parents Want To Opt Their Kids Out Of State Tests

Gov. Rick Scott greets students at West Tampa's Graham Elementary School.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Gov. Rick Scott greets students at West Tampa's Graham Elementary School last week.

Last week Gov. Rick Scott delivered an $8.5 million check to Hillsborough County schools earning good marks on the state’s grading formula.

Those grades depend a lot on student FCAT scores. So Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia took a moment pump up students at West Tampa’s Graham Elementary School before this week’s testing.

“Next week you’re going to have an opportunity to do great again, right?” Elia asked.

“Yeeesssss,” the kids responded.

“Who’s gonna do great?” Elia asked.

She got silence in response.

“You better all have your hands up,” another teacher cut in, drawing laughs from the room.

Florida students are taking FCAT math, reading and writing exams for the final time this year. The test started as a way to measure student progress. But anger with FCAT has grown as state policies added more consequences to the test scores.

Some parents say the pressure is too much. That one bad day testing could have long-term consequences. A small group of parents are pulling their kids out of the FCAT and encouraging other parents to follow.

Cindy Hamilton is one of them. Her son scored a 1 on the third grade FCAT reading exam and could have been retained if he were in third grade now.

“If at that time, when he was taking FCAT, he would have been held back,” Hamilton said. “It would have defined him as a student. And it could have changed his life.”

Now, he’s an A and B student at the University of Central Florida. But the experience is why Hamilton was a co-founder of Opt Out Orlando.

The group coaches and supports parents who want to withhold their kids from the FCAT. Hamilton said parents have more choices than just keeping kids home during the testing period — which can last three weeks.

“There are multiple ways to opt out,” she said. “A lot of people think you just don’t show up for the test, but you can keep your child home for the entire testing window.

“You can refuse the test…or you can request that your student goes to school and is marked present but goes to participate in alternative activities from testing.”

The state Department of Education said Florida law doesn’t allow parents to opt out of the exam.

The law requires third grade students to meet state goals on a reading exam before moving to fourth grade. And students must pass the tenth grade reading exam in order to graduate high school.

But the law also provides alternatives to the exam. Third graders can use a classwork portfolio instead of an FCAT score. And tenth graders can swap an ACT or SAT score – if high enough – for the FCAT.

Hamilton said parents need to talk to the principal and school district about their choices.

Gov. Rick Scott presented Hillsborough schools with an $8.5 million check. Schools which earned an A on the state report card or significantly improved their grade earned a $100 bonus per student.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Gov. Rick Scott presented Hillsborough schools with an $8.5 million check. Schools which earned an A on the state report card or significantly improved their grade earned a $100 bonus per student. School grades are largely based on FCAT scores.

Hillsborough County schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the test results are valuable for schools and districts. He said it’s unusual parents approach the district wanted to hold their children out from testing.

“I think we would respond immediately and say that’s probably not a good idea for your child,” Hegarty said. “It gives us a lot of valuable information that helps us teach.

“I don’t think there’s really any way that we could force a parent to do something like that and I’m sure that it does happen occasionally, but I think it’s pretty rare.”

Neither the state nor most school districts track how many students officially opt out. Some parents don’t announce their intentions.

Statewide, more than 98 percent of students take the FCAT each year. And opt outs are just a fraction of those who don’t.

But advocates want more to join them.

They’re pushing to let parents of disabled children to opt out of the state exam.

And they’re watching a state like New York, where parents are objecting to new, more difficult exams tied to Common Core. Parents across the state have protested the new exams and advocates estimate more than 33,000 chose not to take the exam.

New York advocates even produced a how-to video.

“Though Regents Exams required for graduation should not be refused,” the video advises, “grades three through eight ELA, math and science exams can be refused without consequence to your child, the classroom teacher or the school. Yes, you can refuse the tests.”

Other states with Common Core exams, such as Kentucky, have seen less resistance to the new exams.

A similar exam is coming to Florida next year.

And Common Core opponents like Laura Zorc want to keep their kids from taking the test.

“This is another way to protect our kids,” she said. “We’re not really for sure where our kids’ information will end up, so we just choose to opt them out. It’s just another measure of protection that we want.”

Common Core opponents are also asking lawmakers to introduce a bill allowing parents to opt their kids out.

Lawmakers have shown no desire so far to weaken the standards or state testing requirements.


  • Cherie Fulle-Schneider

    Opting Out is not about avoiding a test–it is about avoiding abuse. The tests are invalid for the subject matter being “tested” because they have so many detractors in each question that often even teachers/parents cannot identify what the question is asking and then, often you cannot distinguish a clear answer to the question. Written as such, these tests do not provide any valid information about a student at all. Too much time is taken away from teaching time to “teach to the test”– far too many workbooks and work sheets come home with “FCAT Prep” on them in addition to the online programs in use that take up rest time/down time at home. Those questions are just as poorly written and invalid. Testing and more testing does not lead to knowledge and learning. The Common Core Standards (now re-named as “The Florida Standards” but they are the exact same thing thank you Pam Stewart we are not that stupid to not notice) were not asked for by the states, they were not written by an education specialist and they are developmentally inappropriate as they were written from the top (college/work) level down which makes the “learning standards” for K-5 completely out of alignment with a child’s developmental learning. This has been stated many times by child development specialists but the politicians do not listen. The middle and high school standards leave out huge gaps in subject areas with the most obvious being the removal of whole novel studies which is replaced by non-fiction excerpts at best. The new “test” that the state Board of Education is the same as FCAT/PARCC as it is being “written” by the same corporation (once again–didn’t think we’d notice Ms. Stewart) and it is being tested in all places—Utah. Utah in no way shape or form comes even 10% close to the demographics of Florida–once again our children will be stuck wasting hours of their valuable time taking an invalid test that we, the people of Florida, are being charged millions to develop, millions paid to Utah to test and millions to Pearson,etc for test prep materials,etc. This and so much more is why we are opting our children out of these worthless tests–they take up their educational time, they don’t test what they are supposed to be testing, they cost millions of dollars that would put more certified teachers back in the classroom, update the school and bring back the arts into the schools. The only way to stop high stakes testing and Common Core (and the flow of money to the Gates Foundation, Walton Foundation, Koch Bro, Pearson and more) is to stop the money and we do that by Opting Out. By Opting out, we also prevent any use of our family data and reselling of it, which you give your approval of when you allow your child to take ANY high stakes tests. A portfolio of work shows the student’s progress over time and a great deal of depth in their work. It is a valid method to determine mastery of subject matter. Testing written by for profit corporations is not. Education is not a business–education is teaching our children (who are all very different) how to learn.

  • Stargazer

    Bravo Cherie. You put beautifully what I and many others are thinking. No thanks are in order to Florida politicians who are destroying an already failing school system. It’s a tragedy that Florida will never truly educate their children without real reform and not political reform.

  • Very well stated, Cherie. Sadly, too many parents have fallen (and are falling) for disinformation and scare tactics from district personnel (even teachers), responding that students MUST take this absurd FCAT. I taught high school (honors) English for 16 years. I represented our school district and state years ago on the New Standards Project (aka “FCAT”) when we were told New Standards would serve as an ASSESSMENT only but NEVER supersede class work & portfolio grading. The body of a child’s work (assessed by the classroom teacher) would continue serving as the main determiner in to what degree children were learning. How foolish we were to believe educrats, who (we now watch in horror) have pried control out of parents’ hands while quickly ushering in corporate whores who care only about profiting off our children. More than ever, my wife & I are considering pulling our kids out of public schools – the entire curriculum focuses on rote & regurgitation (aka “teaching to the test”). As educrats force Common Core down parents’ throats, claiming it’s world-class curriculum, our kids will NOT discover how to think, how to solve problems quickly & sequentially, and how to communicate effectively, both written & spoken. Now, where can parents go for an easy-to-understand explanation of what FCAT (i.e. regardless of what they call it) and Common Core are, why they’re not in their children’s best interests, and what choices they have (i.e. both in terms of opting out of standardized tested and/or opting out of this public madness called K-12 education).

  • Jeanne Marie Viviani

    Cherie and Mark ~ I agree 100%. Here is what I did though even though I was armed with all sorts of great information from organizations and groups like Opt Out Orlando and United Opt Out: I opted my daughter out. Sounds simple right? Not really. As you mentioned, there is a lot of coercion, misinformation and pressure to take these tests. While we are fighting that, we are also fighting NEW things coming at us. It was a lot for me to take in and consider. So, I just looked at my child and it was clear what these tests do and don’t do for her. They DO categorize her in inappropriate ways based on her learning and challenges. They DO penalize her teacher and her school by not doing well which should never be HER responsibility (knowing or unknowing). They DO NOT demonstrate her learning and gains she has made all year long and the hard, hard work she has done with all her learning differences. They DO NOT help her to learn or assess accurately what she DID learn in class. Ultimately, I said no for her and it I know it was and will continue to be the best decision I ever made for her. I hope too that through my actions, others might do the same analysis and collectively, I hope we all can change this system.

  • “I think we would respond immediately and say that’s probably not a good idea for your child,” Hegarty said. “It gives us a lot of valuable information that helps us teach.
    Jacksonville,Florida Raines High School. The Statement Above Is Not True! Getting Harder Teachers And Sending Kids To Grand Park Over The Littlest Things Is Not The Way To Go! Taking Away All The Fun Is What’s Causing Our Test Scores To Go Down. You Ever Noticed Little Elementary School Students Making Games And Songs To Learn The New Material? Or When Theirs A Funny Student In The Class Commenting On Things Its Easier To Remember The Test Scores Are Higher? This Is Because It Is Fun And Interesting Making Kids Want To Learn!
    One Of My Teachers Doesn’t Allow Us To Laugh In Her Class Or We Get Kicked Out And Has A Sign That She Points At That Says “Listen And Silent Are Spelled With The Same Letters” Being Silent With Boring Teachers Is Not Helping Our Test Scores Go Up Or Our Modern World As A Whole.

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