Parent: Why I can’t ‘in good conscience’ leave my kids in public school

Lynne Rigby and her husband Brad live outside of Orlando, Florida, with their five children who have attended a Seminole County public elementary school. Rigby, a former public school teacher and photographer, wrote a letter to state and local officials explaining why, with great sadness, she and her husband are pulling their children out of public schools. No longer, she says, can she accept the effect that high-stakes standardized testing and other school reform measures are having on her children. She posted the letter on her blog so that her friends could see it, and she has gotten a much bigger response than she expected.


(By Lynne Rigby)

The letter is addressed to Florida Gov. Rick Scott,  Seminole County Schools Superintendent Walt Griffin, state Sen. David Simmons,  , state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, Bear Lake Elementary School Principal Alex Agosto, and Bear Lake Assistant Principal Virginia Brouillard.

There are some abbreviations in the letter that you may not recognize: VPK is voluntary prekindergarten; FCAT is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, the state-mandated exams that have been used for years for “accountability” purposes in school districts across the state but which are being replaced by a new test aligned to new Florida standards and being designed by the American Institutes for Research, or AIR. The new Florida Standards in math and Language Arts were approved earlier this year after the state pulled out of the Common Core State Standards initiative and devised their own, which actually look a great deal like the Core. EOCs are end-of-course exams. SCPS is Seminole County Public Schools.

Dear Governor Scott, Mr. Griffin, Mrs. Stewart, David Simmons, Karen Castor Dentel, Mr. Agosto and Mrs. Brouillard and Seminole County School Board Members,

I am a parent of five children in Seminole County Schools aged 4 (VPK) to 16. My husband and I are deeply embedded in this community. We are both successful products of Lake Brantley High School and the middle schools that fed into it. I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1995 and came back to Seminole to teach Kindergarten at Pinecrest and Wekiva; he is currently the pitching coach for the Lake Brantley varsity baseball team. Our ties run deep. We stayed here so our kids would be blessed with a similar educational experience and opportunities.

This year has been completely disheartening for us.  You see, I’ve been okay with FCAT…show what you know, I get it….some sort of accountability. That was until this year. My third grade son, Jackson, the fourth of my four boys has had mostly As, a scattering of Bs through his Bear Lake career, much like his brothers. However, he has had the Discovery Education tests added to his school year. I saw his score on DE in first grade and it was scary low, in the 20s. But he had 1s and his teacher said that she knows him and he was doing fine with nothing to worry about. Same thing in 2nd grade, though, knowing that FCAT was looming, I began to panic a bit.  We read out loud together each night through the summer, talked about the books as we read and I believed that that would pay off on the first DE test of 3rd grade because he was doing really well.  I was wrong. His first DE test was similar to others but now his teachers start panicking because their pay depends on it. He is sent to remedial LEAP and ultimately a math pullout group. All the while, he has mostly As and a few Bs.

Disconnect. That’s the word that plays over in my head. How can he do all his homework on his own, rarely asking a question, never, ever struggling with any topic and get such a low percentile on a test? Then, an epiphany. What is this test? What is the validity of this test? How does it relate to our curriculum? That’s something I’ve never considered. I’ve always walked the “company” line. I am looking at a print out of Jackson’s answers (B, A, A, C, D, etc) and the correct answers (C, D, A, C, B) and what does that tell me? Nothing. It tells me nothing. I can’t see the test to see what he’s done wrong, to see if the questions are worded well, to see why he’s doing poorly. He’s being pulled out of normal classes for remediation because of this DE test, but he has all As and Bs! He’s excelling from a curriculum standpoint, so I, as a teacher, don’t even know how to help him at home. We did FCAT practice tests at home, something I’ve never done with my older boys who had the same grades but no DE. Shouldn’t I, as a 40 year old mom with an education degree, whose current job is to write instructional lessons for adults, be able to take a test for 8 and 9 year olds in a matter of minutes without thought or “oh, wait, that’s not right?!” moments? Yes, I should, but that was not the case. If I can defend how two answers are correct on a question,then the test is flawed.

Jackson’s brothers had 4s and 5s on all their FCATs, perhaps a 3 thrown in here and there.  All of which I accepted without hesitation. FCAT was no big deal in our house. They’re smart boys, we are involved parents, they have no stress, their lives are good. But now I pause. Did Carson not make it into GEMS because of an inverse operation problem that my mother-in-law, the former LBHS Pre-Calculus teacher, said was flawed on the 3rd grade test? The problem that my husband, a Georgia Tech graduate, said that there had to be a typo because the right answer wasn’t there? On a THIRD grade problem? Suddenly I want to see my kids tests, see where they went wrong, see what they did right, but parents aren’t afforded that option and neither are teachers. If the test is truly a good indicator of student ability, then the parents and teachers should be able to see the actual test and the student work to help the students moving forward?

Fine. FCAT is over. It’s no longer an issue. But the “AIR” test is coming. What will that bring? Who knows? The teachers don’t, the administrators don’t, so the kids and parents surely don’t know.  Oh wait, the state of Utah knows because the state of Florida paid the state of Utah $5.5 million to field test the test. Who’s writing it? And just as important, who is grading it?  The educational grapevine says that 5th graders will have 14 hours of testing. Fourteen. That makes me cringe. If you told me that I had to take 14 hours of testing in a two week period, I’d shut down. And you want to do that to my 10/11 year old?  The mama bear in me starts to come out. That is not developmentally appropriate. Period. It’s no different than expecting and demanding all children to walk at 10 months; some might be able to do it, but a lot, if not most, will not have the developmental skills to do so successfully.  The MCAT is approximately five hours and ten minutes to get into medical school. And the state of Florida thinks it’s okay to subject our small children to fourteen hours stressful and strenuous testing? Free response sounds great when you say it fast, but that means that someone or something has to grade that test.  A teacher, paid a minimal amount, and a computer will be grading the free response test. If there’s a discrepancy, the computer grade takes precedent. Not my child’s teacher who knows him and sees him everyday, but a non-human that is looking for scripted answers?

This brings us to the elephant in the room. Common Core or The Florida Standards which are aligned to Common Core. The materials remain the same. Jackson has the same text books as his cousin in California. I’ve done my research, I’m an over-researcher by nature. And again, it all sounds great when you say it fast. It is nice that kids can move on a Friday from New Jersey and go to school in California the following Monday and pick up right where they left off.  It sounds awesome when you say that kids are on the same page and we’ll be developing critical thinkers; they will rise to the challenge of more difficult standards.  And every kid will be career and college ready at the end of high school and all on the same page? SIGN ME UP.

Sure. Walk that political line. It’s rhetoric. It sounds fantastic when you gloss over it like that. But let’s really look at our implementation of Common Core. I’ve seen it first hand with my third grader this year and to a lesser extent with my older kids.  Let’s take Jackson, his first and second grade lessons were based on the older curriculum.  This year a new curriculum is thrown in, teach it with “fidelity” Seminole County tells them – that means that they used only the Pearson materials (you know, the Pearson that has spent nearly $4.4 million in lobbying in recent years) and only Pearson materials, for the first 12 weeks of the school year.  And get this, then we’ll use the FCAT 2.0 which is aligned with the former standards to decide if this group of third graders is worthy of fourth grade placement.

Jackson had a passage on a weekly comprehension and vocabulary test that was horribly written. The material was about professional athletes, which is relevant to him since his dad played Major League Baseball. The syntax, however, was a disaster. I typed the whole thing into a grade and reading level decoder and it averaged at 10th grade with all its indicators. For my 8 year old. In fact, I gave it to my “gifted” 10th grader to read and he looked at it for a minute and tossed it aside because he didn’t want to have to really think for the 3rd grade work. To the other extreme, Jackson then has “feel” and other long e spelling words in late winter/early spring, along with vocabulary like “sports” and “basketball” which is in stark contrast to the 10th grade passage about professional sports in October! There is no rhyme or reason to the materials and curriculum. It’s a joke, a joke being played on our kids. On MY KID, I’m not cool with that.

We have had some amazing teachers at Bear Lake, Teague and Lake Brantley.   They’ve engaged the kids with creative projects, reader’s theater, allowed the kids to pursue some topics that interest them, delved deeper into cultural studies.  Engaged them.  Though the common core standards purport to foster that kind of education, about 90% of the work Jackson brings home is worksheets, done in class and done at home. Everything I’ve seen this year is stand-alone, segmented. Nothing is deep, there is no time for kids to even consider what is interesting to them, because you’re on page 168 today and you need to get through 170 by tomorrow.  There is nothing engaging about workbooks. Shouldn’t our Florida kids learn about things like the Everglades and the delicate ecosystem with our many lakes, springs and oceans or all about hurricanes?   Think of the units you could do! Think of how many skills you can conquer with a long unit like that! Think about how engaged kids could be in the process and how meaningful it would be to them! Worksheets could still be used, but just to reinforce skills, not as the entire curriculum.  Pearson “with fidelity”  does not allow time for such things; that’s the problem with a nationalized curriculum.

Today’s public school atmosphere is all about accountability and not about the actual needs of the child. Not everything in education can be quantified; we are dealing with little humans who come into that classroom everyday with different backgrounds. Some might not have eaten since lunch yesterday, another couldn’t sleep last night because she saw Dad hit Mom through her cracked bedroom door, and thankfully others come into that classroom with every need met, loved, hugged and kissed as they exited Mom’s car.  Teacher pay is being affected by those factors, factors that they cannot control. Art and music teachers are being “graded” on how well the kids who come to them once every seven days do on their math and language arts FCAT. That is nonsense. The same company who came up with the widely maligned “Value Added Model” for teachers is writing our new standardized test. That does not exactly elicit waves of confidence. You are not programming computers; you can’t expect a 2008 Dell that had coffee spilled on it to perform the same tasks as a 2014 iMac.  I am extremely worried about the work atmosphere you are creating with these criteria and again, the validity of such a system needs to be addressed.

I haven’t even broached the EOCs for every high school class. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why our state would pay to develop, give and grade a test for high school PE or Art 1 or Foods and Nutrition. Academics are one thing, but you need to allow our teenagers to explore topics that interest them and those do not need to come with a standardized test. That is a colossal waste of money and another way to suck out the last chance they might have to love learning.

The goal of education is to foster the child’s fullest potential based on their strengths and interests. I’m lucky, I guess. My kids generally do fit into your perfect little box because they pass tests, they never get into trouble, they will do “fine” at whatever curriculum you throw at them.  But I want them to be excited about some aspects of learning, I want my kids in high school to take some classes because the topic interests them without the threat of failing a standardized test associated with an elective. The time that our kids could be pursuing their interests is being spent on test preparation.  How can test prep be spun as “in the best interest of the chid?” Education should revolve around what is best for the child, right now, it’s revolving around what is best for Pearson’s bottom line and stuffing our kids into this metaphorical box that they’ve created. Weeks of standardized testing not only takes away valuable instruction time, but it also does not give a complete picture of the child. My middle schoolers were on a “testing” schedule for 11 days during testing season. Do you know what that means? It means they sit in one class for 3 hours every morning while another group in the school is testing. Know what they did? Watched movies. Some of them were science movies, but my 6th and 7th graders watched the same movie and did the same project.

The test emphasis is coming from the higher-ups, the State and Federal Government (that’s another topic all together). I get it. I do not blame the school or the county.  Obama’s “Race to the Top” dictates these tests and Common Core through funding. But education is not a race – it is a journey – why must we hurry it along? It is with that that I ask you, Seminole County, to reevaluate. You have a community base in Seminole County who live here for your highly rated schools, but by taking the power away from the individual schools and teachers, you are undermining your superiority.  Allow your your teachers to teach as they see fit for their students, let them create, let them explore. Trust them to know their kids. Take away the script. Allow the kids to play, learn in a manner that is developmentally appropriate. I am asking you to start thinking outside of the box. Stand up for our kids. Put creativity back in learning and teaching.  Someone has to take the initiative to save the schools and a generation of kids – why not you? Why not us? Who is in a better position than one of the highest performing counties in the state?

Teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. Parents are in an uproar. The arguments are varied and most are valid. If you stick with this curriculum and these high stakes tests, I fear you will be creating an even wider divide between haves and have nots. Parents who can afford it will put their kids in private school or homeschool them. The gap will grow; not shrink. I want to stand up for all kids, but even if I scream from the rooftops about how the system is broken, my little voice has a very small chance of being heard. I want it to change and I have strong opinions. Project and inquiry based education. Informal and varied assessments for young kids. Develop the whole child, create curriculum and classrooms which are developmentally appropriate and foster the love of learning. I could go on….

I can’t change the educational environment by myself- at least not in the next few months —  but I can take charge of my kids’ education. For us, I’ve decided that Jackson and Lylah (entering Kindergarten) will be attending Park Maitland next year. This year was a Common Core Experiment and next year will be focused on figuring out the “AIR” test. I cannot, in good conscience, allow them to be the guinea pigs for a curriculum that has not been proven and pawns in the high-stakes testing game. I don’t want Jackson to lose yet another year of meaningful learning while his teacher is forced to figure out how to best prepare him for a test she’s never seen. Because her pay depends on it, because the school’s funding depends on it – she MUST prepare them if she agrees with it or not. I am concentrating my efforts on my younger two kids and praying that my oldest three have had a strong enough educational base that they will survive and hopefully thrive in this new environment.  I want my kids to love learning, I want them to explore and be curious. I want their lessons to be meaningful, deep and connected.  And ultimately, I want them back in Seminole County Schools, unfortunately at this point I do not think that SCPS is the best choice for them and that breaks my heart. It’s a shame because you’re losing out on two pretty amazing kids.

Sincerely,

Lynne Rigby

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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