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    Board member: No FCAT for my kids

    Pinellas School Board member Mary Russell said she will bar her children from taking Florida's controversial state test.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 23, 2003

    Next month, when students around the state sit down for the all-important FCAT exam, Pinellas School Board member Mary Russell's two children won't be among them.

    As a parent and an educator, Russell has a lot of problems with the state's test and the pressure it places on schools and on children. But the fact that she also is a School Board member makes her decision to boycott the FCAT quite complicated.

    "I want to be very clear: I'm doing this as a parent, not as a School Board member," Russell said. "I know I'm going to get some grief for using my kids to make a point. But I think the state is using my kids to make a point."

    Russell's decision is the last thing state officials want to hear on the eve of the test, which starts March 3.

    If great numbers of parents have their kids skip the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as a form of protest, it might compromise the overall test results. It certainly could affect an individual school's grade under the state's A-through-F accountability system.

    Though there have been mass boycotts of standardized tests in other states in recent years, no large-scale boycotts have occurred in Florida.

    "The part that bothers me, is this is a slippery slope; if one parent does it, does another parent do it?" said Cornelia Orr, the state's Administrator of the Office of Assessment and School Performance. Orr said she believes most parents want the kind of feedback the FCAT provides.

    Russell, who has sons in third grade and fifth grade, went to great pains Thursday to say that she is not urging parents to follow her example. And she is not doing it because she worries that her honor-roll-student sons won't excel on the test.

    She said she and her husband have debated the issue for some time.

    When she took her concerns to School Board Attorney John Bowen he advised her that "as a board member she has sworn to uphold the law, and the law says it's mandatory," Bowen said. "But as a parent she has the right to keep her kids home."

    "I haven't come to this decision lightly," Russell said. "But I disagree with the pressure. I disagree with the funding. It isn't good for schools, and it isn't good for kids."

    This year for students, especially for students in third grade, the FCAT stakes are higher than ever. Many parents have received notice that their child might not be promoted to fourth grade if they don't pass the reading section of FCAT.

    Because of that pressure, school officials say they have heard more questions than ever from parents.

    "We get asked that question a lot because schools get asked that question a lot," said Orr of the education department. "I think there are more this year because of third grade."

    At least one other Pinellas County parent is joining Russell in the boycott. Sarah Robinson of Safety Harbor wrote a letter to her son's principal and teachers, letting them know that her son Benjamin, a sixth-grader at Safety Harbor Middle School, would not be taking the test. Robinson is a veteran high school teacher in Hillsborough County.

    "What we are against," Robinson wrote, "is the way this test is used to 'reward' high-scoring schools and 'punish' average and low-scoring schools."

    Pinellas, Hillsborough and other school districts will encourage parents to have their children ready on the FCAT testing days. Also, districts will write a letter to parents whose children don't participate "notifying them of the implications of such nonparticipation," as the law states.

    What are the implications? State law isn't entirely clear.

    "Participating in the testing program is mandatory for all students attending public school," states part of the statutes. However, there are no real consequences of not participating, except in two instances.

    Tenth-graders must pass FCAT before they graduate if they want a standard diploma. They get several chances to pass.

    This year's 12th-graders who failed FCAT when they were 10th-graders two years ago are the first group required to pass the FCAT graduation test.

    Also, if a third-grader doesn't pass FCAT -- or doesn't take it in the first place -- he has a couple other options for demonstrating his reading ability and moving on to fourth grade.

    He could be promoted if he does well on the reading test used for national comparisons. He also could be promoted if his teacher collects evidence of his reading ability in a detailed portfolio.

    "That's fine," Russell said of the portfolio option. "I'm hoping the work he does every day in class will determine whether he goes to fourth grade. Not a one-day test."

    Russell said she spoke with her son's principal at Bauder Elementary to let her know her sons wouldn't be there on test day. The reaction at the school?

    "One of the teachers said, 'It's a shame; we could use the score,' " Russell said.

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