Conflict between Passover, FCAT frustrates Jewish families


Published: Friday, March 7, 2014 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 7, 2014 at 5:51 p.m.

Five weeks remain until the start of Passover, the Jewish faith's week-long commemoration of the Israelites' emancipation from slavery. It is celebrated with family parties that begin after sundown and last long into the night.

This year, that week coincides with FCAT testing, and observant families will be forced to make a choice: change the way they celebrate an important tradition or risk poor scores on a high-stakes, mandatory test.

"I'm not going to change a tradition that's thousands of years old that has really deep meaning for us for (my daughter) to take a test," said Marci Monchek, a local mother who plans to keep her daughter out of her public elementary school for at least the first two days of Passover, per tradition. "That's not an option for us."

She's not the only one.

Depending on a family's level of observance, Jewish students will potentially miss four days of school during Passover — the first two days and the last two, said Virginia Brissette, executive director of the Jewish Council of North Central Florida.

If they don't stay home, students will be walking into the test tired from Seder, the family celebration that takes place after the sun goes down during Passover, she said.

Very conservative families may keep their children out of school for the entire week.

"It's a big holiday," Brissette said. "It's important. People travel to be with family. In many communities, they take the entire week off and they spend it with family."

FCAT testing and Passover have overlapped in the past, but this year the state Department of Education's testing window and the holiday begin on the same day, April 14.

The state gives school districts narrow flexibility with testing dates — districts may begin testing after April 14, but not before — but Alachua County Public Schools assistant superintendent Karen Clarke said they're not given enough flexibility to avoid Passover completely.

Per DOE guidelines, Florida school districts have eight school days from the start date to administer each test, including make-up days for students who miss tests. Every school in the district must adhere to the same daily testing schedule, including if the district suspends testing to accommodate, for example, a religious holiday.

In the days of paper-and-pencil testing, this might not have been an issue, Clarke said.

Now that some of the tests are administered on a computer, schools can't have an entire grade level sit for a test at the same time. Rather, it might take a whole school day just to get all the fifth-graders through the computer labs for their reading test, and each student takes multiple subject tests.

"Even within the window, we pull it very close getting our students tested within that (computer) lab time," Clarke said.

Historically, FCAT testing has started slightly later, and 2014 testing was originally scheduled to begin April 22 in order to miss Passover as well as Good Friday, which falls on April 18 this year.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart explained the change in a letter sent to all district superintendents in August. Based on scheduling issues with computer-based FCAT and end-of-course exams backing up to each other in 2013, Stewart wrote, the DOE decided to move the start date for FCAT testing a week earlier this year.

"In an effort to offer more scheduling flexibility yet still accommodate students and staff who observe religious holidays," the letter reads, districts may postpone testing until after Passover and Good Friday or suspend testing on certain days.

However, "This may not allow for the full eight school days of testing for each grade level/subject test."

School districts do have the option of giving tests later than the prescribed window, but taking advantage of it could throw a serious wrench into things, she said.

Districts that use the later deadline don't get student test scores and school grades back until several weeks after regular-deadline districts do.

But that means students' scores might not come back until after the last day of school, creating a problem for third-graders, who must pass the reading test to go on to fourth grade, and for high school seniors who had to retake the 10th-grade reading exam, which is a graduation requirement.

Later FCAT testing also would run into high school computer-based end-of-course exams, creating more scheduling conflicts in the computer labs.

With 27,000 public school students in 41 schools in Alachua County, Clarke said, "There's just not a way to make that adjustment."

The result is that Jewish students who miss school during Passover — along with any other student who misses a testing day for any other reason — will have to take makeup exams after the regular testing period ends, while their classmates get back to normal lessons.

Monchek, whose daughter will miss school during the holiday, said the testing schedule singles out Jewish students and puts them at a disadvantage.

Elementary school students are aware of what's riding on their test scores, she said, and it can stress them out. To force a certain demographic of students to make up the tests on a different day, without the rest of their class, could be a hardship, she said.

"They're not understanding," she said of the officials who scheduled the testing window. "They're not looking at it like a 10-year-old."

Jocelyn Peskin's third-grade son takes his first FCAT this year. She hadn't planned to keep him out of school, but he will be part of the family's Seder.

Seder can go pretty late, she said, "especially for a school-aged child."

Peskin said she worried about how teachers with a larger proportion of Jewish students in their class might be affected by the testing schedule. Teacher evaluations are based in part on student FCAT scores, and next year their pay will be tied to student performance.

She said she's disappointed with the state's testing schedule, but said she doesn't blame her son's school or the district. Most Jewish families in the area, Peskin said, seem to have resigned themselves to it.

There's not much of a choice, she said. "I either have to celebrate not the way I normally do, or send my kid to school tired."

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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