Paul Rolly: Utah teacher who balked at testing gets placed on leave

By PAUL ROLLY

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 28, 2014 10:02AM
Updated: April 4, 2014 11:46AM
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Paul Rolly

An honors English teacher who has vocally criticized Granite School District’s computer-adapted standardized tests as a waste of time and irrelevant to what students are being taught has been placed on administrative leave and may be fired.

The ongoing conflict between district brass and Wasatch Junior High teacher Ann Florence came to a head Thursday. Florence, who was on sick leave, appeared at her first-period ninth-grade class and read a prepared statement to the students. The statement indicated she is going through a disciplinary process, which could lead to termination.

That led to a rebuke from her principal, Christine Judd, who wrote in an email that she was disappointed Florence would involve her students in the dispute.

Later on Thursday, Florence received a letter from Assistant Superintendent Mike Fraser that was delivered to her home by the district’s police. It informed her she was being put on paid administrative leave and would not be allowed on Granite District property.

The teacher’s classroom appearance, though, also prompted a letter emailed to her by one of her honors students that began: “Oh captain, my captain, you have taught me so much this year. The value of honesty, imagination, and freedom to express myself. I cannot thank you enough for that. You are the best teacher Wasatch could ever ask for.”

Students launched a petition drive, urging that Florence not be terminated. By fourth period, 84 students had signed it.

Florence had refused to grade the students’ performance on the Acuity test, which is administered three times a year. For that, district officials say, she has been guilty of insubordination. Two weeks ago, her principal told her she was being referred to the district for disciplinary action, which a union official told her usually results in termination.

But when she met with Fraser last week, he told her he would decide her fate later.

She had not heard from him since and began calling the district at the beginning of this week. She continued to teach under this cloud, but the uncertainty led to stress that persuaded her to call in sick the past two days. When she still hadn’t heard from Fraser by Thursday, she decided to let her first-period class know what was happening.

District spokesman Ben Horsley said personnel decisions of this gravity take time to make the right choice. He said Florence has been unreasonably aggressive in demanding an answer.

Liz Weight, the American Federation of Teachers representative, said she hopes the delay isn’t part of a strategy.

“Spring break begins Friday,” Weight said. “Students will not be back in school until April 7.”

Some fear the decision is being delayed until school is out — a time when the community and parents may not be paying attention.

Several dozen teachers have participated in an email thread supporting Florence and denouncing the Acuity test as not only worthless to student development, but also unethical because the teachers must grade the exams themselves. Teachers worry that this practice provides at least the opportunity to alter answers to boost student scores — on which the teachers will be evaluated.

Emails indicate teachers have been told by administrators to keep quiet about their concerns. After the English department at Evergreen Junior High sent an email to the district criticizing the Acuity test, teachers were told at a faculty meeting to stay out of the debate.

One junior high teacher wrote that when her daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident, she was given no time off to care for her and was ordered to complete the Acuity test grading while using all of her spare time to care for her daughter.

Horsley said the few dozen teachers who have complained about Acuity constitute about 1 percent of the district’s 3,500 teachers, so it isn’t fair to conclude there is a groundswell against the test.

As of now, Florence’s fate remains in limbo and, as she said in the letter she read to her students, “Someone else will get to teach you ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”

prolly@sltrib.com