A bizarre letter from Florida’s Education Department

What is the Florida Education Department thinking?

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart just issued an open letter to teachers (see below) that makes the ridiculous mistake of accusing people who want a change in standardized testing requirements for severely disabled students of launching a political attack on the department. It said in part:

“You may have read about political efforts to attack assessments by using the tragic situations of children with special needs.”

Really?

The letter comes after a well-publicized episode in Florida in which a mother named Andrea Rediske said that the department was requiring her family to fill out forms proving why her disabled son could not take this year’s Florida Alternate Assessment, a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. 

At the time, her 11-year-old son Ethan, who was born with brain damage and suffered from cerebral palsy, was dying in a hospital. He passed away on Feb. 7, at home with his parents at his side. A short time after his death, his mother appeared before the Florida Board of Education to urge officials to approve proposed legislation called the Ethan Rediske Act, which would allow local authorities to exempt disabled students from taking high-stakes standardized tests rather than continuing the current lengthy process that involves state officials. She said in part:

My name is Andrea Rediske, and I am Ethan Rediske’s mother. Before you peg me as merely an angry and grieving mother, let me tell you a little bit about myself: I am an educator. I have a master’s degree in microbiology and have been an adjunct professor of microbiology for 11 years. I have a passion for education and I know how to write an exam that accurately assesses the abilities of my students.

Not only was the Florida Adapted Assessment inappropriate for the level of my son’s abilities, it endangered his health – the long, stressful testing sessions requiring him to sit in his wheelchair caused pressure sores, fluid to pool in his lungs, and increased seizures and spasticity that contributed to his deteriorating health.

Only after climbing a mountain of paperwork and garnering media attention was Ethan granted a medical waiver for the FAA. Despite assurances at his IEP meeting that the waiver would be granted again for this school year, the school district demanded paperwork proving his continued medical fragility. The insult to this injury was that he was on his deathbed – the school district and the state of Florida required a letter from hospice care stating he was unable to take the FAA.

This incident caused anguish to my family and his teacher, and shows a stunning lack of compassion and even common sense on the part of the Department of Education. His exceptionally talented teacher faced threats and sanctions because she continued to work with him even though he wasn’t preparing for the FAA. I wonder if these administrators are more concerned with policy, paperwork, and their bottom line than the children they have been elected to serve.

The Education Department apparently felt the need to respond and issued the following letter. It doesn’t mention Andrea Rediske by name but it seems clear that it is in response to her son’s publicized case, along with other cases in which severely disabled children have been forced to take a Florida standardized test. For example, I’ve written repeatedly about a boy named Michael who was born with a brain stem but not a complete brain with cognitive ability and who was forced to take the alternate FCAT last year and will have to do again. (You can read about that here.)

Instead of acknowledging the obvious problem, the Education Department chose to attack those who speak up about just how ugly the state’s obsession with standardized testing has become (although this problem is hardly exclusive to Florida). Here’s the letter from Stewart it released. Now that the letter is public, it would be useful if the department could release another one explaining why in the world it couldn’t have come up with a reasonable response.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s letter to Florida teachers on Florida Alternative Assessment

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 3