by Lane Wright, editor at Education Post, a nonprofit fostering better conversation for better education.
If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on in the case of the Opt-Out moms versus the state of Florida, it’s that Michelle Rhea’s daughter can read just fine.
Last year, Florida education officials said she needed to be held back in the third grade because she didn’t pass a required reading test. She didn’t pass the reading test because her mother, Michelle Rhea (not to be confused with Michelle Rhee the education reformer) instructed her to opt out.
Now Rhea is suing Florida with other parents in her Opt-Out Florida Coalition. Her case landed in the Supreme Court of Florida on April 5.
Rhea would have people believe that the state might just as well hold any third-grader back, including those who can read, just because they “had a bad day” or “aren’t good test takers.” But that’s not true. Believing it, and buying into the opt-out rhetoric, could be detrimental to third graders who really are struggling, and to all students who are at risk of slipping through the cracks of the education system.
The fact is, Florida has a policy in place for situations where kids are having a bad day or just don’t test well. Kids who have the reading skills, but just can’t demonstrate them on a standardized test, have the option of presenting a portfolio of their work to demonstrate their skills. For students who haven’t grasped basic reading skills by the end of third grade, the state notifies parents and sets in motion a plan to give them “intensive instruction” to help catch them up.
I’m guessing the state doesn’t have an alternative for the children of protesters who simply refuse to take the test, which may be the reason Rhea and her coalition members ended up not submitting the reading portfolios they had planned.
The opt-out movement bubbled into the public narrative a couple years ago, primarily supported by those in middle- to upper-class white neighborhoods in a few pockets across the country. The movement has since died down significantly. Testing season is in full swing in Florida, and the only stir is this single lawsuit that has been in the court system three times.
Orange County resident Rhea and her coalition won the support of a Leon County judge in August last year, and posted this YouTube video about it. That judge agreed that the school should have notified her right after the test and then “implemented a remediation plan.” But the issue in this case was never really about the school’s accountability to parents. This was about a third-grade student—a child who consistently got A’s and B’s, who participated in extra-curricular activities, and who was prepared to submit a portfolio of work demonstrating her reading skills—deciding to opt-out at the direction of her mother. She didn’t need remediation.
A three-judge appeals panel overruled the Leon County judge in March saying the state has a compelling reason for holding third-graders back. The compelling reason is essentially that third grade is a critical moment when students begin transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. If they haven’t got basic reading skills by then, it could dog them for the rest of their academic career.
I get that some parents don’t like tests; they can be stressful. And I agree that in most schools there are too many, and that it has changed the culture of learning into a culture of teaching to the test. But some tests are necessary, and having all 2.8 million students in Florida submit portfolios to be graded is just unrealistic, cost-wise and logistically.
The judges also said the state had a compelling reason to have all students take the test. Qualifying for federal funding is one of them, but as I mentioned in another post, there are plenty of other good reasons, like making sure schools don’t inflate their performance by encouraging certain students to skip testing days, or simply to be able to see which groups—students with disabilities, minorities or economically disadvantaged students—may be falling behind or making progress.
Some may be alarmed at the prospect of holding kids back a grade: What effect will it have on them socially? What will it do to their self-esteem? But the policy exists in Florida because at one point (under former Governor Jeb Bush, circa 2002), we decided the greater wrong was to let kids who can’t read well continue on to higher grades where reading is one of the primary ways kids learn. The social and societal implications of that surely outweigh the temporary stigma of being held back a year.
What the opt-out parents don’t see, or perhaps simply don’t care about, is that the more students opt-out of state tests, the less we know about how well our schools are meeting the needs of all students. When large numbers of students refuse to participate, it creates a system where kids from poor neighborhoods, students with disabilities, minorities, and non-native English speakers become more invisible, and less likely to get the support they need. Without everyone participating it’s harder to see trends among students and make meaningful comparisons.
I don’t know enough about this specific case to pick sides. I mean, obviously, I support strong school accountability, but maybe the state really did do something wrong here.
What I do know is that Rhea seems to believe that what she is doing is right for her child. I also know she’s privileged enough to have the means of getting her daughter to a private school where she’s finishing up her fourth-grade year. The only problem is that her commitment to opting out and encouraging others to do so comes at the expense of many other children—kids who will see a greater benefit in school if more children like Rhea’s daughter opt back in.