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by Sandy Stenoff

In Just Read Florida’s Read to Learn, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) is clear:

“The purpose of retention is to give children who have substantial reading deficiencies more time and the intensive instruction they need to catch up in reading.”

There are decades of solid research and scholarly articles about why third grade retention is not only not beneficial for students, but is, in fact, harmful. Therefore, if a student has no documented reading deficiency, it is even more obvious that no one is served by retaining a child simply because they are lacking a single test score. Not teachers, not schools, and most importantly, not the student. The opt out movement seeks permanent change for all children, with research-based decisions. Third Grade retention goes against all accepted scientific research about the best practices in education.

Florida law is clear:

FS 1008.25(5)(c)6.
6. That 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.

From a practical as well as an educational standpoint, Pasco Supt. Browning stated, on June 2, 2016:

“As superintendent of Pasco County Schools, I want to make it clear that I have no desire to retain third graders who clearly demonstrate that they have mastered state standards.  Retaining students not only has questionable long-term benefits for the retained student, it also adds to the cost of educating them.”

And yet, as the school year has ended and satisfactory report cards have been sent home, many third grade students across Florida, whose report cards proved them proficient, but whose parents opted them out of testing, have been either retained (here, here and here), scheduled for summer school or further testing (SAT10, IOWA) before their districts will promote them. These children minimally participated in the FSA by sitting for the test, but did not complete the test and received no test score.

Throughout this post, I will refer to “portfolio tests” and “student portfolios.”  This is an important distinction.  The state has seen fit to “help us” by creating a bank of test items, which they call a “portfolio” (don’t forget the air quotes). That is not a portfolio. It is a series of tests (in some cases as few as 15 in Seminole or as many as 42 in orange), which cover the requirements to meet the required standards.

Some districts have promoted students without test scores (see here), confident that the children’s (satisfactory to excellent) report cards are evidence that they met the required standards to prove their mastery of third grade. Some children are in retention limbo, waiting for their districts to make final decisions to promote them or to continue this farce of retaining proficient children. Other districts, having foreseen this exact predicament, administered the state’s portfolio tests, some from the beginning of the school year, and were able to satisfy the good cause exemption from retention. Still other districts administered the SAT10 or the IOWA, post-FSA, both with and without parental knowledge, and promoted some of the children.

Parents, who opted out of the Third Grade FSA are testing the system and have also refused all manner of standardized testing. They are demanding that the districts promote their children based on their work, done throughout the school year. These courageous parents are not afraid of tests. A portfolio may contain many different kinds of tests and assessments done throughout the year. They object to the standardized tests which are used, not in service of their children’s education, but for the data used to rank and sort their children, teachers and schools, adding to the culture of incessant test prep which eats up valuable instruction time all year long. They object to promoting (or retaining) their children by a single test score, which denies teachers’ professional integrity and their children’s hard work. Reliance on a single test score denies the worth of a year of teaching and learning in the classroom.

Children with no FSA scores and NO reading deficiency are STILL at risk of retention. Many of us in the opt out movement believe strongly, that without evidence of a documented reading deficiency, a report card should suffice to promote a child from the third to the fourth grade. Most school districts either don’t agree, disbelieve this or they dismiss it. From our perspective, the only acceptable alternative assessment is the assessment of a student portfolio – a collection of a student’s independently completed work from the classroom, done throughout the school year.

In the May 27, 2015 Tampa Bay Times –
Florida education rules permit portfolios for promotion to fourth grade:

“…nowhere in the state law does it say that a child with a poor score, or no score, must take an alternate test to the Florida Standard Assessment before seeking a portfolio option. In fact, the law offers a portfolio as an equal good cause exemption to an alternate assessment…”

In the absence of an FSA score, and in spite of having administered the IOWA twice in the year, Seminole County remains adamant about using only the SAT10 or the state’s portfolio tests for good cause exemption, instead of an actual portfolio of independently completed work, which, if the standards have been taught in this stellar district (7th out of 67 districts), all students should have. There should be no reason why the work would not match the standards.

In Seminole County, third grade students are among the most heavily tested in the state and are subjected to:

  • FSA – March through May
  • IOWA – October and April/May
  • Trimester exams – every 12 weeks
  • Progress monitoring Assessments – 3 times/year
  • Scholastic Reading Inventory – 4 times/year

This is in addition to Accelerated Reader, used to derive Lexile scores and all of the computer adaptive competency-based online tests, such as iReady and SuccessMaker, among others.  Why insist on the portfolio tests, which is really just MORE testing, about which teachers have said repeatedly that very few third graders can pass because they are above grade level?

If schools are teaching the standards, a student portfolio would be proof that required standards are met. What reason then, could a district have for not using such a portfolio?

Consider…

If a teacher is not meeting the statutory requirements from their unit assignments or chapter tests, this begs the question:  Why not?  If a teacher does not have at least three pieces of evidence of students’ mastery for each standard, what is the teacher doing?  If a teacher is concerned that the assignments they give through the year may not satisfy this requirement, that’s another question entirely.  If a teacher says: “This is too hard” or “This is more than what I’m doing”, we can respond by asking: “Then, what exactly, ARE you doing?”  Remember, our teachers are teaching the standards.  And if they are not, that is where the Principal comes in.  That’s a conversation to be had with the Principal and the Teacher.

The assessment of a student portfolio is, without question, the best test of a teacher’s and a district’s accountability, which is what the opt out movement supports.  The student portfolio is the best evidence of a child’s work, on good days and bad, under the guidance and direction of a trained professional for all 180 days in school.  When parents opt out of allowing the FSA to be the sole determiner of their child’s fitness for promotion, they  entrust the authority of assessment where it belongs: in the teacher’s hands.

In the June 16 Charlotte Sun, Jill MacIsaac, Administrator for Opt Out Charlotte stated,

“What’s happening in third grade and throughout the state is we’re devaluing our teachers in third grade by saying it really doesn’t matter what you think, it doesn’t really matter what you say if they fail this test,” MacIsaac said.

The opt out movement is the strongest grassroots advocacy movement supporting teachers’ professional autonomy and authority, stronger than the PTA (where’s the T?), stronger than the two national teachers’ unions (NEA and AFT), which, in the past, have repeatedly avoided partnership opportunities to defend their own teachers’ classroom authority.  Many teachers don’t even realize that this movement supports them, nor do they clearly understand how we do so. This is a reminder that the Florida Education Association has posted informational resources from The Opt Out Florida Network on the FEA website for teachers (also here).

Florida statutes and the Oct 24 2014 Student Progression Technical Assistance Paper both state that parents can choose a student portfolio as an alternative assessment and that a student need only pass ONE assessment to be promoted to the fourth grade. Nothing in Florida statute or the Student Progression Plan states that parents may/shall/must be denied the option to use a student portfolio as a good cause exemption – for any reason. AND the FLDOE has said there is no hierarchy of good cause exemptions, therefore, none is more or less valid than any other.

The FSA validity report said that the FSA does not fully align with all the required standards. (The DOE did counter by saying that almost every question did match a standard… just not necessarily the one it was claimed to match.)  Since the requirements for a student portfolio do match the standards, a satisfactory student portfolio actually exceeds the standards tested by the FSA. A student portfolio is superior evidence of a student having mastered third grade requirements.

A portfolio is not simply a collection of a students work. A satisfactory portfolio must meet State requirements, and the requirements are not a breeze. The FL DOE clearly details the requirements for a student portfolio here:

B-2. When should the teacher and students begin the third-grade student portfolio?

A parent of a student in grade 3 who is identified anytime during the school year as being at risk of retention may request that the school immediately begin collecting evidence for the portfolio.

B-3.  Are there guidelines provided by the state for the third-grade student portfolio?

Yes. As provided in the updated Rule 6A-1.094221, F.A.C., to be accepted as meeting the portfolio option for demonstrating mastery of the required reading skills, the student portfolio must:

  • Be selected by the student’s teacher;
  • Be an accurate picture of the student’s ability and only include student work that has been independently produced in the classroom;
  • Include evidence that the standards assessed by the grade 3 statewide English Language Arts assessment have been met. Evidence is to include multiple choice items and passages that are approximately 60 percent literary text and 40 percent information text that are between 100-700 words with an average of 500 words. Such evidence could include chapter or unit tests from the district’s/school’s adopted core reading curriculum that are aligned with the Language Arts Florida Standards or teacher-prepared assessments;
  • Be an organized collection of evidence of the student’s mastery of the Language Arts Florida Standards that are assessed by the grade 3 statewide English Language Arts assessment. For each standard, there must be at least three examples of mastery as demonstrated by a grade of 70 percent or above on each example; and
  • Be signed by the teacher and the principal as an accurate assessment of the required reading skills.

Additionally, note that the Just Read, Florida! Office has begun creating an updated Third-Grade State Portfolio.

B-4.  Do the same portfolio guidelines apply to ESE students?
Yes. The state portfolio guidelines apply to all students, including ESE students.

B-5.  Is the student portfolio the only tool used for good cause exemption and/or promoting a third-grade student to fourth grade in the middle of the year?
No. The student portfolio and an alternative assessment are the two state-approved options for good cause exemption and mid-year promotion. The student must be offered both options. However, the student must only demonstrate proficiency on one of the options in order to receive a good cause exemption or be promoted midyear.

B-8.  Can grade 3 English Language Arts items from the Florida’s Item Bank and Test Platform be used as part of a student’s third-grade portfolio for good cause exemption or mid-year promotion?
Yes. Items used in a student portfolio must meet the specifications stated in question B-3 Rule 6A-1.094221, F.A.C.
NOTE: B-8: “…part of a student’s third-grade portfolio…”  School districts have mistakenly turned Florida’s Item Bank and Test Platform (a series of tests) into the entire “portfolio.”  This is a mistake, it’s lazy and parents should not accept this.

A student portfolio and portfolio test items are not interchangeable, nor were they intended to be. There is nothing in the state statutes, which supports having to use the state’s portfolio tests over a student portfolio. AND – Parents have the right to request it. No district can legally deny that option to parents, if it is requested.

There is even more detailed guidance from the FL DOE on Third Grade portfolios.: Florida Department of Education 2015 Third-Grade Portfolio – District Guidance

The student portfolio may consist of some or all of the following resources:

IMPORTANT NOTE:
NOWHERE does it say that a portfolio must utilize ANY content from the IBTP.

At the June 14 Orange County Public Schools board meeting, Vice Chair, Nancy Robbinson provided a strong statement of support for the use of an authentic portfolio to promote children who have no test score. (Watch from 2:07:39)

Nancy Robbinson stated:
“At our last board meeting, several weeks ago, there were some comments made that implied that… parents were harming their children by having them minimally participate and not take the FSA. And I just have to defend those families. It’s their choice to send their child to public school to begin with; their choice to have their child participate in all the different things we offer. I understand that in the Third Grade, state requirements says that they have to take the FSA, but there are other options.

If you read the statute, there’s are other options. There’s a portfolio statute, that you can start at the beginning of the year. Up until recently, it used to be that the portfolio was really there for teachers, for students that they felt wouldn’t be promoted, because they might not pass the test.

But through this little bit of crisis we went through, going back and forth like Mr Katz said, where the DOE threw the school boards, the districts under the bus, through that, I think we’ve all determined, if you really read the statute for what it really says, and it’s very clear – The teachers CAN choose the portfolio items that they want their students to have. And we’ve found that some of the teachers did a really great job of providing the proper work. When several of those families came in (I didn’t work with every family. I only worked with 8 that came to me. There were some that already been worked with through the same dept.) They came in and their work was so phenomenal that they just went tick, tick, tick, tick and met all the standards. It was really phenomenal.

So that led me to think – Why can’t we use the statute that the DOE is saying is our prerogative to do and be a little more proactive, now that we know this is available, rather than having to be reactive and scramble at the last minute?  Why don’t we put out the information at the beginning of the school year – to the third grade parents, to the third grade teachers, to the principals, to the reading coaches and explain the statute – explain what their options are and explain what it looks like?”

Why indeed?

Some schools have said that they are not allowing the use of a student portfolio (not portfolio tests) because it is too time-consuming for the teachers. Some have said that the work alone does not show clear evidence of having met the standards.  If the standards are what are being taught, then this should not be possible and that is not a problem solved by more testing.

Numerous teachers, including my children’s teachers from years ago, have stated that creating a portfolio as the work is done, is really just a matter of marking the standards required and assessed in school and saving the work in a simple folder. Social Studies and Science can be used to cover the informational text requirements.

Compiling a portfolio is not new and it is not rocket science.

This doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Parents need only request early on in the school year, that a portfolio be maintained because there is a risk that their child may be retained, and they need to request to examine the portfolio from time to time. This is necessary because in numerous instances, parents have been told that a portfolio was being maintained at their request, and then too late, found that it was not the case.

Parent and high school teacher, Joshua Katz spoke compellingly at the same board meeting and addressed the fact that his daughter, Abigail was promoted to the fourth grade without a test score by using a portfolio as her good cause exemption.

Wouldn’t a portfolio be a far more authentic, effective and informative assessment of a student’s progress than a one day snapshot? It would certainly provide immediate feedback for teachers and students – and it is there for immediate reference.

Three years ago, when my son was in the Third Grade in Orange County, I quietly asked my son’s teacher at the start of the school year, to maintain a portfolio because I would not be allowing him to take the FCAT. She said that it was no problem as she had already started a portfolio for a few students in the class, who she felt might be at risk. She was kind enough to ask if there were any other tests I wanted him not to take. I opted him out of iReady, AR and benchmark testing. I remember being concerned that there might not be enough “data” to promote him. A veteran Third Grade Teacher reassured me that there wasn’t any “data” that could be gotten from the online assessments, benchmark tests, etc. that my son’s teacher wasn’t able to get in the course of the day.  She further reassured me that the data the teacher would get would be higher quality data, with which to immediately inform her instruction of my child.

My son was promoted without incident. There was ample evidence of his mastery. Because his teacher knew that he would not be taking “the test,” she was free to really teach him outside of the test prep box… and he was free to really learn.

Resources and Support:
Opt Out Florida Third Grade
The Opt Out Florida Network

SUGGESTED READING:
06/13/16: Charlotte parents speak out against high-stakes tests
06/01/16: Manatee super blames FL education officials for shifting stance on retention
05/31/16: Manatee Supt Greene to allow all 3rd-grade students good-cause promotions
05/27/16: Florida education rules permit portfolios for promotion to fourth grade
05/26/16: Students who opted out of testing could be retained
04/18/14: FCAT reading and third grade: Alert parents to portfolio option, lawmakers say


HIGHLY SUGGESTED READING:
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