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Lee County schools opts back into state tests but rekindles debate

TAMPA — The Lee County School Board on Tuesday reversed its decision to become the first Florida school district to opt its students out of state standardized tests — a move that thrust the school district into the national spotlight last week.

Still, the vote stirred new and enduring debate in the Tampa area and statewide about the value of standardized testing — and calls for state lawmakers revisit the issue.

Some local school board members said they sympathize with Lee County’s frustrations over testing but they don’t see fully opting out as the best way to bring about change. In Florida, state tests are tied to everything from teacher evaluations and funding to whether students graduate from high school.

“A move like that would essentially hold our kids hostage over a political battle and I just don’t think that’s right,” said Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy White, who is against the over-use of state tests. “State funding could have been withheld. Students could have been denied diplomas.”

Instead, White said school board members should lobby legislators, the governor and the state Board of Education to examine the many ways test scores are used.

“That’s the right way to fight the fight,” White said. “We’ve got to be very careful with what we do at the local level.”

This school year, a new test — the Florida Standards Assessment — will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The new test is aligned to the new Florida Standards, which are based on the controversial Common Core State Standards adopted by most states and the District of Columbia.

The math and language arts goals were designed to stress critical thinking and better prepare students for college and careers. But they have drawn widespread opposition, including from White. Opponents consider the standards to be overreach by the federal government and fear they will put even more of an emphasis on testing.

The original Lee County School Board opt-out decision came in a 3-2 vote Aug. 27, to cheers from a packed room of testing critics.

The vote came two days after Gov. Rick Scott called for an investigation into the new standards and all state standardized tests.

On Tuesday, the board rescinded the first vote in a 3-2 decision during a special meeting at the request of board member Mary Fischer, one of the three who originally moved to opt out. Fischer changed her mind after hearing about the implications such a move could have on the school district.

Critics of standardized testing argue that school systems are putting too much of an emphasis on testing, leading to a “teach-to-the-test” culture. But some say it is necessary to measure what students know so comparisons and improvements can be made.

Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers said students are tested too much. In her county, they take 12 standardized tests during the school year. She encourages anyone with concerns about assessments to take them to Tallahassee.

“Let legislators know, ‘We can go to the voting booth and test you out,’” Flowers said.

She said opting out as Lee County board members did would cause more harm than good, so she was glad to hear they reversed it.

“I think it was more of a statement of frustration.”

In Pasco County, school board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she would be reluctant to opt out of state testing but that she understands the concerns.

“There are just way too many tests,” Crumbley said.

But for a school board to vote to opt out of the tests is going too far, she said.

“It’s so far reaching to make a board statement that we aren’t going to do this,” Crumbley said. “You can’t do that. It’s irresponsible.”

Hillsborough school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said reliable state tests are needed, but “when you tie that to accountability and high stakes, that’s where it gets controversial.”

“Maybe that’s what will come out of it,” Hegarty said. “A robust discussion about what we should use tests for.”

The Florida School Boards Association posted a document on the online agenda for a Friday meeting that spells out how opting out of state tests could affect a school district. According to state law, all districts must administer state tests to students who attend public schools. Testing is required for students to graduate from high school and to apply for certain types of state and federal funding.

The state Board of Education has the right to pull funding from a district if it doesn’t comply.

“The law is pretty clear,” said Hillsborough School Board attorney Jim Porter, who has fielded questions from board members about what opting out could mean for a school district. “The ramifications are pretty severe for students’ ability to get high school diplomas and districts to pay salaries.”

The document spells out all the ways assessment data is used, including determining salaries, giving performance pay increases to school employees and determining scholarship eligibility.

Hillsborough School Board Vice Chairwoman Susan Valdes called Lee’s original decision to opt out “very courageous,” but added that school board members must follow state laws.

“That’s first and foremost,” Valdes said.

Hillsborough board member Cindy Stuart said she hopes lawmakers paid close attention to Lee County’s experience. School board members and others should be having serious conversations with their legislators about the anxiety of preparing for the new test, which is still being developed, without seeing it first, she said.

“I think we’ve all had enough,” Stuart said. “This may have forced a conversation (about) high-stakes testing and the stranglehold it has on so many of us in education.”

Tribune staff writer Ronnie Blair contributed to this report.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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