By CBSMiami.com Team

TALLAHASSEE — In a win for advocates of English-language learners, Florida is allowing students to opt-out of taking an annual English proficiency exam that is administered in person.

The state Department of Education also is expanding the window of time for K-12 public-school students to take the test, if they choose to do so.

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Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of Florida’s public school system, announced the changes Thursday in a letter to school district superintendents.

Oliva’s decision came after advocacy groups asked state officials to delay what’s known as the ACCESS test, an in-person evaluation that measures English-language learners’ proficiency, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state education department “highly recommends that all ELL students participate in the ACCESS test,” Oliva wrote, but will “fully respect the decisions that families make should they choose not to send their children to take this assessment.”

Alianza Center, a non-profit organization that advocates for Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the state, and LULAC Florida launched a petition earlier this month urging state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to postpone the in-person assessments due to coronavirus safety concerns.

The ACCESS testing window began on Monday and was slated to end on March 19. But the exam now will be offered through May 28 — effectively until the end of the school year in most school districts.

“This is proof of what we can accomplish when our community is united and committed to the safety of our public school students and families,” Alianza Center executive director Johanna López said in a press release issued Friday.

Lopez, who also serves on the Orange County school board, told The News Service of Florida that it was “very important” for the testing window to be expanded and that parents’ choices be respected.

“That’s something that I highly appreciate,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

While the Department of Education is giving students and their families a way out of taking the ACCESS test for now, Oliva emphasized the exam’s importance in gauging English learners’ progress.

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“To that end, it is critical that your families be advised that the results of this assessment inform the services their school district provides to their children,” Oliva wrote in Thursday’s email to school superintendents. “Absent these assessment results, their services will lack critical guidance and may fail to address the needs of these students.”

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Oliva also directed superintendents to open testing centers in their districts to administer the ACCESS test to English learners who are currently attending school online. His message also told district officials to inform students about safety protocols at testing centers, and to “let them know if you are opening testing facilities on evenings and weekends.”

López said she agrees with Oliva about the exam’s importance, in part because “we can provide more services if we see that that student is not improving in English-language acquisition.”

However, she said giving families options is the right move at this time.

“I think we have to be creative in how we assess our students during this pandemic, because safety comes first,” López said. “We usually think about testing when we think about evaluation, but there are many ways to evaluate a student.”

According to the Department of Education website, Florida has more than 265,000 English-language learner students, who speak more than 300 languages.

López said a conversation with one of her counterparts at LULAC led to a key development in garnering support for the advocacy groups’ petition — offering the online proposal in Spanish as well as English.

“At that moment, we did not have enough information in Spanish,” López said.

She said the advocacy organizations are discussing offering all future communications in languages commonly used by Florida’s English-learning students.

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“We’re reaching out to the families whose first language is Spanish. The majority of our ELLs (English-language learners) in Florida speak Spanish, and the second largest group are Haitian,” López said. “We are thinking, every single time that we are trying to educate our community, or asking for any type of initiative, service or program, it would be better for our children to have information in all three languages — English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.”

CBSMiami.com Team