A picture of the scene in court on Friday, Aug. 12, where judge heard lawsuit by parents against education officials in Florida. This was drawn by Peyton Mears, an 11-year-old who was at the hearing to support the parents. The woman on the stand is a parent, Michelle Rhea. (Drawing by Peyton Mears)
A picture of the scene in a Florida court Aug. 12, where a judge heard a lawsuit by parents against state education officials. This was drawn by Peyton Mears, an 11-year-old who was at the hearing to support the parents. The woman on the stand is a parent, Michelle Rhea. (Peyton Mears)

“Florida, in short, had a chance to show whether it was on the side of education or on the side of stupid. It picked stupid.”

That’s how veteran teacher Peter Greene described what an appeals court in Florida just did in a case about some third-graders — including honor students — whose parents opted them out of a state-mandated standardized test in spring 2016 and who then weren’t permitted to move on to the fourth grade. Three judges on the court decided that a standardized reading test is the best way to decide whether third-graders should move to fourth grade — not actual school work or grades.

Assessment experts say it isn’t true — despite years of battles over the value of high-stakes standardized test scores — but the judges ruled that way anyway. It is worth noting that Florida has had so many serious problems with its standardized testing accountability system — in which high-stakes test results are used to evaluate students, teachers and schools — that school superintendents statewide revolted in 2015 and said they had “lost confidence” in its accuracy.

The case involves a Florida law, passed years ago when Jeb Bush was governor. It says that students who fail a third-grade language arts test can’t move on to the fourth grade, though some children who can demonstrate required reading ability through a state-approved alternative test or student portfolio can win promotion if a school district decides to allow an exemption. The third-grade retention policy has not been shown to have a lasting benefit to students, but Florida and other states that adopted it at Bush’s urging maintain it anyway.

Parents of the third-graders from a number of school districts who were denied promotion because they opted out of the test went to court and sued. In August 2016, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers ruled that those school districts that had refused to promote third-graders who declined to answer the test questions had been wrong to do so. She wrote:

“Grade 3 students with no reading deficiency should not be retained, but should be promoted.”

But the case was appealed and the 1st District Court of Appeal just overturned Gievers’s ruling. Three judges on the appeals court panel said the districts weren’t wrong, and they made clear that they think that  standardized testing is the best way to determine whether a student has the reading skills necessary for promotion, not proficiency:

The purpose of the ELA is to assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before (and after) being promoted to fourth grade. See § 1008.25(5)(a). The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

There were a lot of technical aspects to this case, including about legal jurisdiction and exactly what it means for a student to “participate” in an administration of a standardized test. The parents who sued had told their children to simply write their names on the tests but not answer any question in what they termed “minimal participation,” which they believe they have the right to do under state law. The Florida Department of Education and school districts disagreed with the parents, and now the appeals court has as well.

That policy was developed before the rise in recent years of a testing opt-out movement, in which hundreds of thousands of parents around the country have refused to allow their children to take mandated standardized tests. Their reasons include that they believe the results are being improperly used to evaluate schools and teachers, that students are tested too much, and that test designs don’t reveal real academic progress.

The vapidness of the position taken by the appeals court as well as by Florida and school district officials can be summed up in what Mary Jane Tappen, Florida’s vice chancellor for public schools, said during a hearing held by Gievers before she made her decision last year. Tappen said that a student could flunk reading for an entire school year and then receive a score of 2 on the Florida State Assessment in reading — which is the lowest passing grade — and be promoted to fourth grade. Honor students who flunked the test would not move to fourth grade.

Virtually all of the students whose parents sued moved to private schools or were promoted to fourth grade after all, but the suit was an effort to get rid of the third-grade retention policy. There are a few bills in the Florida legislature to eliminate it, but it is unclear where they will go.

All of this is what led Greene, on his Curmudgucation blog, to say in a sarcastic piece that Gievers’s decision in August 2016 “should have been the end” of the case.

Properly slapped, education officials should have come to their senses and exclaimed, “Holy smokes! We got so caught up in this we were more concerned in making sure that opt-out families obeyed us than finding ways to see if students are really learning.”

Instead, some local districts decided to keep being jerks to the children, and the case went back to court.

“Dare to sue us for the right to advance a grade just because you have straight A’s,” they said. “We will not rest till we can put some hurt on your tiny 10-year-old frame.”

I don’t want to know what the children are going to learn about being a responsible adult from this whole sorry mess.

And now, the appeal court judges have ruled on the side of stupid.

The purpose of the state test is to “assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before being promoted to fourth grade,” they wrote. “The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.”

How? How how how how? And what is “less” about demonstrating the skills in question through the year-long activities and work as evaluated by the trained professional educator? Do any of these judges have experience or training that would allow them to know whether or not the test can achieve its alleged purpose?

The ruling, which threw out all of the August court decisions, raises so many questions. Since this buttresses the state argument that report cards don’t matter, does this mean a child who flunks every class but gets satisfactory scores on a standardized test is legally entitled to advance to the next grade? Does this mean that Florida schools should abandon report cards entirely? Will Florida state troopers be sent into the other counties not involved in the case and force them to ignore portfolios and hold test scofflaws back in third grade? Will families with young children avoid these counties like the plague? Has Florida just found one more clever way to undermine public schools and drive families toward charters?

These districts, the state, and the court had a chance and a choice. They could show that they were most concerned about the child’s ability to read, show that they cared, as they claimed, about the need to show reading skills as a foundation for future success — or they could show that what they most cared about was forcing obedience to the state, forcing opt-out families to do as they were told by the government whether it made sense or not.

The districts, the state, and the court chose the latter — a choice all the more obnoxious because there is not a shred of evidence that the test measures reading skills or that third grade retention helps the child succeed in school or life.

Florida, in short, had a chance to show whether it was on the side of education or on the side of stupid. It picked stupid. Shame on the court. Shame on the districts. Shame on the state.