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Miami Seeks Graduation-Test Waiver for Hurricane-Displaced Students

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The superintendent of the Miami-Dade schools plans to ask Florida officials to let students who fled Hurricane Maria skip the state exams that are required for graduation.

Alberto M. Carvalho told board members at a meeting last week that he would request a testing waiver from the state of Florida. If granted, that waiver would allow about 90 11th and 12th grade students to skip the Florida Standards Assessments, which students must pass to earn diplomas.

Since Florida's tests are given only in English, activists have been concerned that high school students who fled their homes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the Sept. 20 storm would be unable to pass the test and earn their diplomas.

Miami-Dade currently has close to 700 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in its schools as a result of the storm, district spokesman John Schuster said. Of those, 90 are 11th and 12th grade students who face having to take the FSA. It wasn't immediatley clear what other tests, if any, those students might take if the district wins the waiver.

Osceola County has about 1,500 Puerto Rican students displaced by the storm, more than almost any other district in Florida. About 88 percent of those students qualify as English-learners, according to Superintendent Debra Pace.

Earlier this month, the Osceola county district submitted a request to the state department of education to allow its students to take state-mandated tests in their native language. At the high school level, that would mean using a Spanish-language version of the SAT, Pace said.

Groups who advocate for English-learners see the exit-exam requirement as unfair, since refugee students haven't been properly prepared for Florida exams.

"These students should not have to come to the U.S.—not by choice—and while they're getting used to a new culture and new norms, take assessments they haven't been prepared for," said Santiago V. Wood, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, which has been working with local activists to get the Miami-Dade school board to seek a waiver of the testing rules.

State department of education figures show that as of last week, nearly 6,600 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are enrolled in Florida districts due to Hurricane Maria. State officials couldn't immediately confirm that they had received the districts' waiver requests, or say what action the state would take in response to such requests. 

Spokeswoman Cheryl Etters noted that Gov. Rick Scott waived state rules to facilitate the enrollment of students whose families were fleeing the storm. But it is only now beginning to grapple with other issues sparked by the influx of students. 

"We don't have answers to all of these questions yet," she said. "We made it easier for them to come here, but some of the issues now that they're here still have to be worked out."

Orange County, which took in 2,000 students from Hurricane Maria, has been exploring the issue of how to manage the exit exam for its high school students, and is concerned about the state's position, as reflected in a letter from Commissioner Pam Stewart to Julia Keleher, the secretary of education in Puerto Rico.

The Nov. 17 letter, written in response to Keleher's request for help for students displaced by the hurricane, says that those high school students are eligible to earn Florida diplomas. But Stewart said in the letter that the state would also support students in completing the requirements for Puerto Rico high school diplomas.

"This will allow students the ability to graduate on time with a Puerto Rico diploma rather than risk potential delays inherent in an attempt to complete the different curriculum necessary to obtain a Florida diploma," the letter says. 

Orange County schools spokesman Scott Howat said the district is concerned about the state's position taken in the letter.

"Our position still remains that what is best for these students is to make every effort to assist them in obtaining a Florida diploma, by offering an alternative test to the FSA," he said.

Stewart's letter does not mention the possibility of alternative exit exams.

For more on the fallout of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico schools, see:

'Huge Lift' Remains As Puerto Rico Schools Struggle to Reopen

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