Florida Education Commissioner: Students cannot opt out of testing

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart responds to questions via letter

By Erik Sandoval - Reporter

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart responded Monday to questions about a grassroots movement for students to "opt out" of state exams, saying that administering state standardized tests are the responsibility of local school boards.

The letter also said that the state can withhold funds and competitive grants and take other punitive action if a school district fails to comply with state law, "including non-compliance with the assessment statute."

The letter was sent in response to questions from Florida Sens. Don Gaetz and Bill Montford, chair and vice chair of the Education Appropriations committee, and Sen. John Legg, chair of the Pre-K-12 Education Policy committee.

The senators sought clarity on issues of cost, frequency and validity of state exams. In addition, they asked about the consequences that students face if they opt out of exams, and the ramifications for teachers who support, encourage or fail to report test refusals.

"Pam Stewart is a bully. She went after teachers and their profession," said Cindy Hamilton, co-founder of Opt Out Orlando, which seeks to give parents the power to opt out of their children taking the standardized tests.

"It's horrifying!" said Sandy Stenoff, "Opt Out Orlando" co-founder.  "We have a whole generation of kids coming through 'No Child Left Behind' who are really ill prepared."

Monday's response was the first in a series of letters expected from Stewart. The letter cites Florida statute, which says that "participation in the assessment program is mandatory for all school districts and all students attending public schools."

And while there are certain exemptions in law -- for certain students with disabilities or who are "medically fragile" -- no other exemptions exist.

Stewart warned districts and parents that they face consequences if they try to opt out of taking the exams, including disciplinary action for teachers, reduced funding for districts and children being held back a year in school.

"There is no state or legislative policy that guides local exemptions from local assessments," the letter says. "School districts are the most appropriate source of information on whether they allow exemptions, and if so, under what circumstances."

The letter also says that a widespread act of civil disobedience by a large number of students refusing to take the exams could create questions of test integrity.

"Depending on the extent to which students opt out, school, district or possibly statewide results might not accurately reflect student achievement, and would make it difficult to make teacher, school, district or state comparisons. This would affect not only same-year comparisons, but also year-to-year comparisons as well."

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