Grieving mom takes on state education commissioner over testing disabled students

Ethan Rediske (Used with permission)
Ethan Rediske (Used with permission)

I recently wrote about a bizarre open letter to teachers that Education Commissioner Pam Stewart released that accused people who want a change in standardized testing requirements for severely disabled students of launching a political attack on the department. Stewart’s missive followed testimony before the Board of Education  by an Orange County, Fla., mother named Andrea Rediske who had waged a long battle with the department over a requirement that her severely brain-damaged and blind son, Ethan, who also suffered from cerebral palsy, take an alternative version of the state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Rediske fought for a test waiver for her son last year and won, but recently, while he lay dying in a hospital, she was required to fill out paperwork proving that Ethan could not take a new standardized test this year. Ethan passed away on Feb. 7, at home with his parents at his side. There is now a bill called the Ethan Rediske Act in the Florida legislature that would make it easier for families to obtain test waivers by allowing local authorities to exempt disabled students from taking these high-stakes exams rather than continuing the current lengthy process that involves state officials.

Stewart’s letter, which you can read here, said in part:

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

A political attack? Really?

Here’s a letter that Andrea Rediske sent to the commissioner in response:

Dear Commissioner Stewart,

When I addressed the Florida Department of Education a mere 8 days after my son’s funeral, my purpose was to foster a greater understanding and perhaps some compassion for families like ours who have children with severe disabilities. Ethan benefitted greatly from his time in the Hospital Homebound program in the Orange County Public School District [OCPS]. His teachers were talented and insightful, and he made measurable educational gains according to the goals of his Individual Education Plan. However, as I stated when I addressed the FLDOE, the Florida Adapted Assessment was not an appropriate metric for measuring those educational gains, and in the last years of his life, endangered his health.

Your letter to the teachers of Florida stated that there had only been 30 waivers requested and only 16 granted for students requesting exemption from standardized testing. I will reiterate my statement as to why parents of students with severe disabilities are not requesting these waivers: We are already fighting through bureaucratic red tape and paperwork on a daily basis, trying to secure the necessary medical treatments, equipment, supplies, and medications for our children. We spend our lives sitting at the bedsides of our children in pediatric intensive care units or critical care units when they are sick, coordinating appointments with doctors and therapists, and simply trying to keep them alive. We are exhausted. The requirement to submit even more paperwork for approval by the school district and the state Department of Education to exempt our children from these inappropriate tests is simply one more bureaucratic mountain that we don’t have the energy to climb.

The FLDOE and OCPS have taken something away from me that can never be repaid: time. Time spent in procuring even more paperwork to prove that my son was too sick to take standardized tests required by the state. Time that should have been spent focusing on his care and savoring his sweetness and happiness in the last moments of his life. Your letter suggesting that my motivations in coming forward to put my private grief out for public display, comment, and judgment for political gain is simply unconscionable. My only purpose was to give voice to our situation and the situations of so many other children like Ethan and their parents so that they wouldn’t have to suffer as we have under the demands of the policies of the FLDOE. Indeed, other families have come forward and shared their stories and legislation has been put forward that would make it easier for students like Ethan to be granted waivers from standardized testing. There is nothing political in giving voice to the thousands of disabled children in this state who cannot speak for themselves.

 

Sincerely,

Andrea Rediske

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 5