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This year, the Seattle public school system is giving annual standardized tests to many of its 53,000 students on days that coincide with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, a holy month in which the religious fast from sunrise to sunset.

That calendar overlap caused concern in the Muslim community after school system officials wrote a form letter for principals to share with parents that included suggestions about how to get their children to take the exams.

The basic advice: Ensure that kids get enough sleep and eat before they come to school so they have “enough energy for the day.”

Only one principal, Katie May of Thurgood Marshall Elementary, used material from the letter in an email to families at her school. But that was enough to spark the controversy, the latest that many districts have seen in recent years as they attempt to accommodate growing numbers of students with different religious and cultural beliefs.

Here’s part of what the district’s form letter suggested to parents:

Please consider the following:

• Allow your child to eat, or participate in partial day fasting, on testing days.

• Ensure your child is getting sufficient sleep the night before testing days.

• Make sure your child is eating prior to coming to school to provide enough energy for the day.

• If your student chooses to observe fasting, testing can be scheduled in the morning.

Backlash from Muslims quickly appeared on Facebook and other social media outlets, according to Crosscut, which first reported the story along with KCTS-TV in Seattle. And that caught the attention of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The Muslim civil rights and advocacy group issued a statement calling it “inappropriate” for schools to suggest how children should mark a holiday. It said in part:

Ramadan lasts a month, is often observed through fasting during daylight hours, which often means late nights for observant families. Ramadan is one of the most important holidays in the Muslim calendar. It is inappropriate for a school to suggest how children should celebrate a holiday.

“This is a consistent issue with the Seattle Public School System,” said CAIR-WA Executive Director Masih Fouladi who cited the school district’s decision to start school on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish High Holiday, this year. “If they are committed to making education equally accessible to all then they need to be committed to honoring diverse religious practices in the community.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on school district leaders and Thurgood Marshall Elementary to retract its statement and issue an apology, followed by a conversation about “adequate testing accommodations” for Muslim students observing Ramadan from May 5 to June 4.

May posted an apologetic letter on the school’s website that says in part:

I want to apologize for not reading the district letter more closely before sharing it with families and for the hurt it has caused. While local districts can’t adjust the state’s testing period, schools and staff can make accommodations within the testing window. Our school staff, as they have in previous years, will work in partnership with families and students observing Ramadan to make accommodations for students who are fasting. It is not our place to ask families to forgo a critical aspect of this sacred holiday.

Seattle schools superintendent Denise Juneau, the first Native American to have that job, issued a statement that said, “I would like to apologize for that misstep." She said the test schedule cannot be adjusted but that “we can and have provided accommodation recommendations to school leaders.” The statement said in part:

We recognize an important aspect of observing Ramadan is fasting, and while we were not clear in our original communication about accommodations, we want to be clear now. We are not recommending students or families forego an important part of their faith practice.

Juneau also delivered the statement at a school board meeting, where a new districtwide five-year strategic plan, to run from 2019-2024, was introduced with one goal being to make classrooms and the central office more responsive to different cultures.

Here’s the full Juneau statement:

District staff recently received an email from The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Washington pointing out that our communication to families regarding the upcoming state testing window did not provide sufficient support or information for families and students who observe Ramadan. I would like to apologize for that misstep. That was not our intention. In fact, we did meet with faith-based organizations and representatives this past fall to strengthen our support of our students and families and the many diverse faith practices represented in Seattle Public Schools. As a result, staff have been attentive to the start-of-school dates for next year and testing accommodations this spring.

The Washington state-scheduled testing window overlaps with Ramadan, and we cannot adjust that schedule. However, we can and have provided accommodation recommendations to school leaders.

We recognize an important aspect of observing Ramadan is fasting, and while we were not clear in our original communication about accommodations, we want to be clear now. We are not recommending students or families forego an important part of their faith practice.

Our expectation is that school leaders will work in partnership with families to make accommodations that best meet the unique needs of each school community and students observing Ramadan.

Superintendent Denise Juneau

This is the form letter the district made available to principals for their communities if they wanted to use it:

Dear Parent/Guardian [or actual names]:

This spring, your child will take the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. Students in grades 5, 8, and 11 will also take the Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science (WCAS).

This is the fifth year our state will administer the Smarter Balanced tests and the second year for the WCAS. The results from these tests will give a more accurate picture of whether students are on track to be ready for college or career.

Most students will take the tests online. Our school is scheduled to take the tests [insert your school’s testing dates].

For more information about the Smarter Balanced tests, visit www.k12.wa.us/smarter.

To try out an online Smarter Balanced practice test, visit https://wa.portal.airast.org/training-tests.stml.

For more information about the WCAS, visit http://www.k12.wa.us/Science/Assessments.aspx.

To try out a WCAS training test, visit https://wa.portal.airast.org/training-tests.stml.

We realize that this year, a portion of the state testing window coincides with the observance of Ramadan. We want to make sure that you are well informed of our testing schedule, so you may help prepare your child to do their best on the assessments. We will be able to offer testing sessions in the morning and will monitor students for fatigue.

Please consider the following:

• Allow your child to eat, or participate in partial day fasting, on testing days.

• Ensure your child is getting sufficient sleep the night before testing days.

• Make sure your child is eating prior coming to school to provide enough energy for the day.

• If your student chooses to observe fasting, testing can be scheduled in the morning.

Please call or email [insert school or district contact person/team] if you have questions about state testing.

Thank you for continuing to work with us to make sure your child is successful. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to better support your child. We want your child to leave us with a solid foundation of skills and a future full of opportunities.

Sincerely,

[Insert principal’s name]

May, the principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, wrote the following letter apologizing for her email and posted it on the school’s website:

Principal Response to State Testing Letter

Dear Thurgood Marshall Elementary Community:

As our school’s principal, I take seriously my commitment to make sure each student feels honored, academically supported, and connected to our school community. This includes recognition and support of our families' diverse faith practices and beliefs.

This last week, content in an assessment letter I forwarded from the district office, caused unintentional harm to our Muslim families and students, specifically those observing Ramadan. This year, the Washington state-scheduled testing window overlaps with Ramadan.

I want to apologize for not reading the district letter more closely before sharing it with families and for the hurt it has caused. While local districts can’t adjust the state’s testing period, schools and staff can make accommodations within the testing window. Our school staff, as they have in previous years, will work in partnership with families and students observing Ramadan to make accommodations for students who are fasting. It is not our place to ask families to forgo a critical aspect of this sacred holiday.

I also think it is important I comment on the district’s intent versus impact. Seattle Public Schools' assessment team was aware of the testing window conflict with Ramadan. They worked with an internal team, including staff who observe Ramadan, to provide school-based guidance on how to best support students and families during this sacred, month-long holiday. This is part of ongoing efforts to be more proactive, responsive, and supportive of the faith practices represented in Seattle Public Schools. Centrally provided supports included guidelines and the sample parent letter you received last week.

The team's intent was to maximize student success by providing school leaders guidance, not to ask families to accommodate testing and abandon a fundamental requirement of their faith. While this was the intention, this commitment was not communicated clearly. The team has since made revisions to the sample parent letter and will redistribute to school leaders.

I want to thank everyone for reaching out and sharing your concerns with me. The Thurgood Marshall community is incredible. While this has been a very challenging situation, I have been so grateful to parents and staff that advocated for our students and called attention to the communication issues and misstep. I want to re-emphasize my commitment to ensuring Thurgood Marshall is a safe, welcoming, and supportive school for all students and families. If you have specific questions or continued concerns, please contact me directly at kjmay1@seattleschools.org.

Sincerely,

Principal May

(Correction: A previous version had an unrelated video attached.)