TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- In a blow to parents seeking to have their children "opt out" of Florida's high-stakes tests, an appeals court on Tuesday ruled that school districts have a right to hold third-graders back when they score badly on a state reading test.
The 1st District Court of Appeal threw out a ruling by a lower court judge who said a handful of school districts must consider options other than students' performances on the Florida Standards Assessment test when deciding whether to promote a student.
The court also found that Circuit Judge Karen Gievers should have required parents to sue in their home counties instead of filing the lawsuit in Leon County.
Florida first tied reading scores to grade promotion as part of then Gov. Jeb Bush's overhaul of Florida schools. But as a backlash against standardized testing has grown some parents have told their children to only fill out their name on the test and to leave the rest of the questions blank.
Last year the parents of more than a dozen children from several counties sued so that their children would not have to repeat the third grade.
The lawsuit maintained at the time that the children should have been promoted because they got good grades and demonstrated they could read at grade level. But school districts and state officials defended the third-grade retentions and even disputed the academic performance of some of the children.
A three-judge panel concluded that the state had a "compelling interest" to make sure students do not have a reading deficiency.
"The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes parts in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student's ability," wrote Judge T. Kent Wetherell. "Anything less is a disservice to the student - and the public."
The decision has little practical effect on the dozen students who were initially involved in the lawsuit because they were able to go on to the fourth grade or they left public schools.
Andrea Mogensen, a Sarasota attorney who represented the parents who sued, said her clients were reviewing whether or not to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
"The parents are disappointed, naturally, that the court endorsed a statutory interpretation that in Florida's public schools, testing is more important than proficiency," Mogensen said in an email. "The ruling also suggests that the state's emphasis on testing supersedes the input of a child's parent regarding their child's education."
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