A Florida school board rescinded its vote Tuesday to opt out of standardized testing, changing its mind about its unprecedented decision that captured the growing discontent among parents and teachers nationwide over the number of tests children are given.
In a first for Florida and possibly the nation, Lee County voted last week not to administer tests tied to the Common Core academic standards or any end-of-course exams. The vote came after parents organized petitions, Facebook groups and meetings in favor of scaling back or getting rid of standardized testing.
"People said, 'Enough is enough,'" said Bob Schaeffer, education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which endorsed the opt-out vote. "The volume of standardized testing has exploded out of control."
But the decision was met with immediate backlash: Superintendent Nancy Graham warned the opt-out could hurt students and asked the board to change its vote. The Florida School Boards Association cautioned that students who didn't take the state's standardized tests wouldn't meet the requirements to earn a standard high school diploma, and also could miss the opportunity to earn college credit.
On Tuesday, the Lee County school board voted 3-2 in favor of resuming testing before a packed room of more than 200 people. Board member Mary Fisher, who cast the deciding vote, said she changed her mind because she felt the district needed a more focused plan.
Many in the audience made a thumbs-down motion and one man extended his middle finger toward the board as Fisher announced her vote.
"We made the right decision at the time," Fisher said after the vote. "We will minimize the testing."
Parents who had advocated for the opt-out expressed disappointment but vowed to continue pushing for fewer tests.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has to deal with the discontent with the state's testing and school standards, said the board made the right decision. He said that a majority of board members may not have understood the "unintended consequences" of last week's vote.
Scott said he knows there is frustration with standardized testing but countered they have helped the state since they were greatly expanded under former Gov. Jeb Bush. But he also said there is room for changes. Just last week Scott called for an "investigation" into the amount of testing done in the state's schools.
"We do believe in assessments, we do believe in measurements," Scott said during a visit to a Naples hardware store. "That's why our children are doing so well."
The events in Lee County, located in Florida's southwest corridor, were a sort of touchstone to a growing sentiment among parents in many parts of the country. They believe children are given too many tests at the price of a narrowing curriculum and providing a less-than-comprehensive viewpoint of a student's achievements.
The number of federally mandated tests has increased since No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. While previously students were required to be tested once in elementary, middle and high school, No Child Left Behind requires annual assessments to determine proficiency in math and reading.
In some states, additional standardized tests are given in other subjects to evaluate teachers who do not instruct English or math.
In response, a number of districts have passed resolutions calling for standardized testing to be rolled back, but Lee County appeared to be the first to opt out altogether. Supporters said they received hundreds of emails and phone calls from people around the country wanting to know how they could follow suit.
"There is now a disconnect between public opinion and policymaker behavior," Schaeffer said.
Forgoing the tests, however, carries a number of consequences: Districts could be at risk of losing state and federal funding. The tests also are also used to evaluate a wide range of criteria, from whether a student should advance to the next grade to whether a low-performing school is improving.
"We all know that there are downsides to standardized testing, that there have been some unintended consequences, but saying that we should stop testing entirely, that we shouldn't even provide information to the public about results, is a very radical idea," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank
Petrilli said he did not expect to see many more districts following Lee's initial decision.
"I think you might see some other symbolic actions form school boards around the country," Petrilli said. "But at the end of the day as long as they need the funding and the public is demanding information about how schools are performing, I think we're going to see districts administering the test."
Many at the meeting Tuesday in Fort Myers spoke passionately in favor of the opt-out and urged the board to stand by its initial vote. Some said they would be in favor of limiting standardized testing, while others said it causes undue stress in their children.
One student, Trace Mitchell, 18, a high school senior and full-time student at Florida Gulf Coast University, said he was not in favor of the opt-out and thought the board should spend more time on its decision to reduce the number of standardized tests.
"My graduation certificate is in jeopardy because people want to make a political statement," he said, prior to the board's vote. "The waters are very muddied about what's happening."