Laela Gray, 8, started the fourth grade Monday at Pershing Elementary, weeks after she should have, but it almost didn’t happen.
When the new school year started, Gray returned to the same third grade classroom she was in last year, while her twin brother went on to the fourth grade.
The decision to hold her back came as a shock to her mother, Ali Gray-Crist.
"My heart breaks for her, nobody wants to see their child cry,” said Gray-Crist. “When she found out she had to go back to third grade again she was crying bad, I mean she was devastated."
On her last report card Gray earned all A’s and one C in reading. She was being held back because of her FCAT score. She got a 181, one point shy of the 182 she needed.
“It’s the state law and it doesn’t sit well with me,” said Orange County School Board member Rick Roach. “I thought this is an example of when high stakes tests go too far.”
This year in Orange County more than 1,200 students were held back from moving on to the fourth grade.
Many of these children were retained because of a state law that requires third graders who score at Level 1 in reading on the FCAT to be retained.
Roach said there are thousands of kids across the state, like Laela, being held back only by the test.
“It’s not the school's fault, it’s not the principal's fault, the school board can’t do anything about it,” said Roach.
Roach reached out to state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, to see what the state legislature could do about the law and Laela’s story caught Soto’s attention. In the next session Soto wants to amend the law so passage is not based entirely on one score.
“When we are talking about a couple points we really need to give these folks the opportunity to advance,” said Sen. Soto. “While having accountability is important, we need some flexibility so we are truly leaving behind the kids in third grade that need another year while advancing the kids who deserve to move on.”
In the first weeks of school Laela had a tutor helping her with her test taking skills.
She had the opportunity to take a benchmark last week, which would determine whether she could go on to the fourth grade.
Needing a 33 to move on, she scored a 63. She is moving on, albeit a month later than her classmates.
“There is plenty of kids out there just like Laela who do really good in school, but are just bad test takers, “ said Gray-Crist. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair at all.”