One of Florida’s main school testing mandates, established by former Gov. Jeb Bush, came under fire Friday during an emotional three-hour long court hearing in Leon County.
A group of parents from across the state are challenging a state law that prevents children from being promoted to the fourth grade if they score poorly on a mandated reading test. Those parents are part of a growing movement to have children “opt out” of standardized tests.
Circuit Judge Karen Gievers held an emergency hearing to consider a request to block the law so that more than a dozen children from six counties – Broward, Orange, Osceola, Hernando, Pasco and Seminole – would not have to repeat the third grade.
The lawsuit filed by parents maintains students across the state are not being treated equally and that there has been confusion among districts.
Gievers did not issue a ruling from the bench, but repeatedly said she was worried about the children, several of whom attended the hearing and are already staring the new school year. Gievers said she didn’t like the situation but had to give school districts time to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed this week.
“Nobody wants to traumatize a child needlessly,” said Gievers, who added she could make a ruling by the end of next week.
Florida first tied reading scores to grade promotion as part of Bush’s overhaul of Florida schools. The state briefly waived the requirement last year while it was transitioning to a new test, but it was reinstated this year.
David Jordan, an attorney for the Florida Department of Education, said it was important to have the testing requirement because he asserted that reports cards do not show whether a child is actually capable of reading. Miki Presley, assistant general counsel for the department, defended the testing requirement as a way to battle social promotion in early grades.
“As a state we have a legitimate and compelling interest that our students are not socially promoted,” Presley said.
But Michelle Rhea, whose nine-year-old daughter is attending a school in Maitland in central Florida, said it was wrong to hold her back in the third grade after she had gotten good grades and had been told there was nothing wrong with her reading skills.
“She’s a good kid, she works very hard and she earned her grade,” said Rhea, who started crying while testifying on the stand. “Her report card does mean something.”
The parents who filed the lawsuit argue that all of their children had good grades and did well in their classes, yet weren’t promoted. Attorneys representing several school districts disputed the academic performance of some of the children.
The attorneys representing the school districts told the judge they had offered solutions to the parents. Donna Blanton, an attorney representing Seminole County, said of the parents that “this is a problem of their own making.”