Michael is a boy born with a brain stem but not a complete brain with cognitive ability. He can hear, but he can’t see or talk or understand basic information. Yet last year, when he was 9, he had to take an alternative version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — and he is going to have to do it again this year.
I’ve written about Michael several times in the past year (see here, here and here), including in this recent post about Andrea Rediske. She is a Florida parent who had to help fill out paperwork to the state showing that her son, who was then dying at age 11 after a life burdened by brain damage and cerebral palsy, couldn’t take an alternative FCAT this year. Ethan Rediske passed away last week.
Although these two cases are extreme, they are hardly unique: Parents across the country with special needs students are fighting federal and state testing mandates that make no sense for their children.
Why does Michael have to take a standardized test when he doesn’t know what a test is?
Michael was abandoned shortly after birth by his parents, and he has been in the care of a woman named Judy Harris who owns and operates an Orlando care facility for children called the Russell House. The facility is under school board jurisdiction and, therefore, is subject to the same rules and regulations as other schools, including the requirement that every child meet for a few hours a week with teachers and take some version of the FCAT. Michael does meet with a teacher a few hours a week. Harris was quoted last year by News 13 as saying:
Michael loves music, he loves to hear, and he loves for you to talk to him and things like that, but as far as testing him, or questioning him on what is an apple and a peach, what is the difference? Michael wouldn’t know what that is.
Still, Michael’s teacher was required to give him an alternative version of the FCAT last year. Rich Roach, a member of the Orange County school board who helped publicize Michael’s plight, said Michael’s teacher told him that she thinks Michael got one answer right. Roach said Michael appeared to be pointing to the right answer, so the teacher told him she gave Michael credit for that problem. The teacher has declined to be interviewed.
The Florida legislature passed a law last spring that was an attempt to make it easier for students like Michael to get waivers from standardized testing, but it didn’t amount to much, and it mandated a complicated waiver process that parents could attempt to use.
Last year Florida modified its rule on achieving waivers, setting out a lengthy process for Individual Education Plan teams to follow to request a waiver. If the state denies a waiver and a parent wants to challenge the decision, there is yet another long process for the parent to follow.
Michael’s guardian at the home where he lives told Roach that the process was too difficult and time-consuming to undergo and therefore, Michael would go through the charade of taking the alternate FCAT again this year, like he did in 2013.
It’s hard to fault this decision, given the process. From the Florida Education Department:
At the November 19, 2013 State Board of Education meeting, the Board approved an amendment to the rule governing assessments for students disabilities. This was to accommodate the new statute (Section 1008.212, Florida Statutes) that allows for an extraordinary exemption. … The rule includes recently amended language based on revisions to Section 1008.22, Florida Statutes, Student assessment program for public schools, and the creation of Section 1008.212, Florida Statutes, Students with disabilities; extraordinary exemption.
The rule clarifies that the Florida Alternate Assessment, which is administered to students with significant cognitive disabilities, is a part of the state standardized assessment program. In addition, procedures for the submission of a request for an extraordinary exemption from participation in a statewide assessment for a student with a disability are revised based on the statutory requirements of Section 1008.212, Florida Statutes.
Individual educational plan (IEP) teams have the authority to recommend to a district school superintendent that a student with a disability be exempted from participation in a statewide standardized assessment because of specific circumstances or conditions as defined in rule and law that prevent the student from demonstrating the mastery of skills that have been acquired and are measured by a state standardized assessment.
The IEP team must document specific information regarding the student as stipulated in both rule and law. This information must be provided to the Commissioner of Education by the district school superintendent at least 60 calendar days in advance of a specific assessment administration. If a parent disagrees with the IEP team’s recommendation, the parent must be provided with information regarding available dispute resolution methods.
The Commissioner is required to verify the information submitted, make a determination to grant or deny the exemption, and notify the parent and the district school superintendent of the decision within 30 calendar days after the receipt of the district’s request. If the Commissioner grants the exemption, the student’s progress must be assessed in accordance with the goals established in the student’s IEP.
Here’s how parents can dispute a decision they don’t like, according to Florida law:
The parent of a student with a disability who disagrees with the commissioner’s denial of an extraordinary exemption may request an expedited hearing. If the parent requests the expedited hearing, the Department of Education shall inform the parent of any free or low-cost legal services and other relevant services available in the area. The Department of Education shall arrange a hearing with the Division of Administrative Hearings, which must be commenced within 20 school days after the parent’s request for the expedited hearing. The administrative law judge at the division shall make a determination within 10 school days after the expedited hearing. The standard of review for the expedited hearing is de novo, and the department has the burden of proof.
Here is part of the new rule approved by the Florida Board of Education last November that explains what kind of information an IEP team has to present to seek a waiver from a test for a student with a severe disability. Note that the disability itself — however profound — is not good enough to request a waiver.
(6) Extraordinary exemption. Pursuant to Section 1008.212, F.S., upon approval of the Commissioner, a student with a disability is eligible for an extraordinary exemption from participation in statewide standardized assessments as defined in subsection (1) of this rule.
(a) An IEP team may determine that a student with a disability is prevented by a circumstance or condition as defined in subsection (1) of this rule, from physically demonstrating the mastery of skills that have been acquired and are measured by a statewide standardized assessment and may recommend that an extraordinary exemption from the administration of a statewide assessment be granted. A learning, emotional, behavioral, or significant cognitive disability or the receipt of services through the homebound or hospitalized program in accordance with Rule 6A-6.03020, F.A.C., is not, in and of itself, an adequate criterion for the granting of an extraordinary exemption.
(b) The IEP team, which must include the parent, may submit to the district school superintendent a written request for an extraordinary exemption at any time during the school year, but no later than sixty (60) calendar days before the first day of the administration window of the statewide standardized assessment for which the request is made. A request must include all of the following information:
1. A written description of the student’s disabilities, including a specific description of the student’s impaired sensory, manual or speaking skills;
2. Written documentation of the most recent evaluation data;
3. Written documentation, if available, of the most recent administration of statewide standardized assessments;
4. A written description of the circumstance’s or condition’s, as defined in subsection (1) of this rule, effect on the student’s participation in statewide standardized assessments; and
5. Written evidence that the student has had the opportunity to learn the skills being tested;
6. Written evidence that the student has been provided appropriate instructional accommodations;
7. Written evidence as to whether the student has had the opportunity to be assessed using the instructional accommodations on the student’s IEP which are allowable in the administration of a statewide standardized assessment; and
8. Written evidence of the circumstance or condition as defined in subsection (1) of this rule.
(c) Based on the documentation provided by the student’s IEP team, the school district superintendent shall recommend to the Commissioner of Education whether an extraordinary exemption from participation in a given statewide assessment administration be granted or denied. The school district’s recommendation and accompanying documentation must be sent to the Florida Department of Education, Office of the Commissioner, 325 West Gaines Street, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0400.
(d) If the parent disagrees with the IEP team’s recommendation, the dispute resolution methods as described in Rule 6A-6.03311, F.A.C., shall be made available to the parent.
(e) Upon receipt of the request, documentation, and recommendation, the Commissioner shall verify the information documented, make a determination, and notify the parent and the district school superintendent in writing within thirty (30) calendar days after the receipt of the request whether the exemption has been granted or denied. In order for an extraordinary exemption to be granted by the Commissioner, all required documentation must be submitted and must provide sufficient evidence that the identified circumstance or condition prevents the student from physically demonstrating the mastery of skills that have been acquired and are measured by the statewide standardized assessment. If the Commissioner denies the exemption, the notification must state the reasons for the denial.
(f) If the Commissioner grants the exemption, the student’s progress must be assessed in accordance with the goals established in the student’s IEP.
Roach said in a recent interview:
“I am shocked and disappointed that they haven’t considered every child. They seem to have a master plan for everyone with accountability and nobody escapes that. That’s the sad thing when they have this one size fits all mentality.”
Cheryl Etter, press secretary at the office of communications and public affairs at the Florida Education Department, said in a December e-mail:
It is a moral obligation to help every child, regardless of their circumstance, learn as much as possible. Specialized alternate assessment tests always take into account a student’s unique needs and make specific accommodations for that student. Improvement in these tests can be measured in many ways that are individualized for that student. And these accommodations and goals have been arrived at after close consultation with teachers, administrators, the student’s family or guardian and many others.
We also have a legal and moral responsibility to find out if students are learning and making progress. Prior to the passage of PL 94-142 in 1975, states were not required to provide a public education to students with disabilities. Children with disabilities were not educated at all and were sent to so-called “schools” to live out their lives in obscurity.
There has been much progress in this area over the last 30 years. We no longer shuttle children to these dark recesses. Today, states are required to ensure that all students with disabilities are being educated and included in the state’s accountability plan and to measure learning for all students.
Asked why a boy like Michael could not easily get a waiver from taking a test, she replied in an e-mail:
While we can’t talk about an individual student due to state and federal privacy laws, in general the waiver process is intended for students who, due to a recent occurrence, cannot participate in the state assessments. As an example, if a student lost their eyesight due to an accident a month before testing, the student would be eligible for a waiver from testing for that academic year. Waivers do not apply to students with a chronic situation.