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Extraordinary Circumstance: Local Educators Question Merits Of Testing Severely Disabled

On a recent March morning, the students in Debbie Capple’s class sat in a circle in the center of the classroom. Capple held a card with the word “green.”

“Somebody help me with the green,” she asked, surveying the circle for traces of the color.

A couple of the students smiled and nodded or turned their heads. One student made an audible response.

Like many of the students at the school, the children sit in wheelchairs. Most of them have difficulty moving without help. Some of the children cannot hear. Others cannot see.

A boy sitting in the center is blind and deaf.

But as third and fourth-graders at Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center, they are all required to take a statewide exams. For most of the students in the school of about 150, that exam is the Florida Alternate Assessment, or FAA.

“The Florida Alternate Assessment is given to each of the kids with disabilities who are in the same grades as kids who take the FCAT,” said Mt. Herman Principal Mark Cashen.

The exams are designed for students unable to take the standard Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, simplifying questions with fewer choices and typically represented in picture, text or number form. Like the FCAT, the tests consists of items in Reading and Mathematics in third-through 10th-grade; Writing in grades 4, 8, and 10; and Science in fifth-, eighth and 11th-grade.

It is a side of the state’s accountability system that relatively few see. But in Florida, more than 20,000 students take these alternative tests, including the state’s most profoundly disabled.

“We have kids who have multiple and complex, medical, intellectual, physical disabilities,” Cashen said.

For the educators and parents of that small population, concerns over the system and its impact are mounting.

“Their world is so limited," Cashen said. "The test is so broad that it’s not going to get to what our kids know."

At times, test-taking at the school involves multiple sessions for the students—many of whom suffer from attention deficit disorder and other medical conditions that make it difficult to stay still for long periods of time. For many of the students, it can involve removing all but one of the three choices they’re given, Cashen said.

“And many, many, many times our kids won’t even choose the only thing left, so the teacher can take their hand and put it on the choice,” he said.

Under assessment guidelines, even the latter approach still merits a score.

However, educators at the school say they’re more concerned about another number: the two months it takes to administer the exam.

Last year, teachers at the school calculated the hours, Cashen said.

“It took the equivalent of 8.3 weeks to administer the alternate assessment to our kids,” he said.

In addition to that, teachers will spend about another three weeks in May administering the district-wide Curriculum Guide Assessment. Duval County Public Schools issued the interim exam to all public schools this year to help align the district with the new Common Core State Standards. It was first issued in the fall and will be administered a second time in May.

The time spent testing is time that could be used to help the students with the life skills they really need, said Diane Mitchem, who teaches 10th and 11th grade at the school. Many of her students are just beginning to move, use the bathroom and communicate on their own.

“The FAA is asking questions that we haven’t introduced to the students,” she said. “We’ve attempted to do math and language arts at their level, at what they know and understand. When they take steps, we count their steps with them. There’s nowhere on the FAA for counting.”
Instead, the 28-year veteran teacher, said she has found questions on the exam that even she had trouble understanding.

“It’s embarrassing for me to admit it, but there were 10th-grade concepts that I had to go look it up,” she said. “If I had to go look it up to explain it to my students who had never heard this concept before and probably never would hear that concept, we’ve gone way overboard.”

Growing criticism

Special needs students in Florida have been required to take the alternative assessment since 2008, but recently, the testing mandate came under fire following news of an Orlando mother’s fight to get an exemption for her 11-year-old brain-damaged son.

Under current state law, student waivers require several pages of documentation from a special needs instructional team, including the child’s parent and school employees. It must be submitted 60 days in advance of the assessment to the district superintendent. Once approved by the superintendent, the request must also be submitted and approved by the state commissioner of education for final approval.

The plight of11-year-old Ethan Rediske, who passed away last month, led to the introduction to a bill in both the House and Senate to make it easier for severely disabled students to get an exemption from the exam. The bill is known as the Ethan Rediske Act.

‘Don’t know they exist’

For University of North Florida professor Chris Gabbard, Ethan’s story hits very close to home. His son August Chazan-Gabbard suffered from cerebral palsy and blindness.

“He had major oxygen deprivation at his birth, so he had the repercussions of brain damage,” Gabbard said.

The teen who loved laughing and people would have turned 15 on March 5, but he passed away last October from a neurological movement disorder known as Dystonia.

“For a small percentage of the students who qualify to take the FAA, they should be just exempted because there’s no test that would be meaningful and that was the case of my son,” he said.

In cases like that of August, Gabbard said emphasis should be placed on skills that will eventually help them in life outside of the classroom.

“Basically, you’re helping those kids to assist their caregivers in the future such as transitioning from a wheelchair to a car or from a bed to a wheelchair,” he said.

In a letter issued to teachers last month, State Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart expressed her support for the FAA amid growing criticism from some parents, educators and teachers union members.

In the letter, Stewart wrote “We cannot and should not return to the days where we tacitly ignore children with special needs by failing to ensure they are learning and growing as a result of teachers’ excellent work.”

But Gabbard said many people, including school officials, overlook children like August everyday.

“Most people don’t know they exist,” he said.  “When they think of disability they think of maybe a kid with Down Syndrome or they think of autism which has got a high visibility. They might think of dyslexia or ADHD. They don’t think about kids who have to be strapped into a wheelchair because they have to sit up, who can’t see, who can’t speak, who wear a diaper, who can’t move for the most part.”

In an emailed response to WJCT, Florida Department of Education spokesperson Joe Follick noted that the state is required under federal law to administer the exams to special needs students.

“We will always do our best to help in these unique circumstances while ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn and grow while enrolled in public school,” Follick stated in the letter.

He also noted that of the 1.7 billion students who took statewide assessments last year, only 30 students requested exemptions. Sixteen of those requests were granted.

However, Gabbard, who never sought an exemption for his son suggested the low number of requests may have less to do with lack of need and more to do with lack of knowledge.

“I have to say that it never really occurred to me to protest the system,” he said. “I just thought this was the way it was.”

Then he learned the story of Ethan Rediske and his mother and was inspired.

“She said this is ridiculous and should not be allowed to happen,” he said.

At Mt. Herman, Cashen said the school has not pursued a waiver for any of its students because teachers and administrators are already certain of the answer.

“If the state does not consider a student who has cerebral palsy, who's deaf and blind, who has no control over their limbs, if they don’t consider that child to be eligible for an exemption, I don’t see how any of my kids would qualify over that,” he said.

But Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the state can and should make changes.

“This is just one of many examples where there’s an enormous disconnect between schools, districts and the state,” he said.

In the district, officials are already making adjustments to their own interim exam for next year, he said.

“Basically, from an interim assessment point of view, I’m going to ignore the FAA as constructed by the state because it’s not appropriate for the children,” he said.

He said he hoped the state could eventually do the same.

“It’s a matter of listening,” he said. “It’s a matter of being sympathetic to the issue and then being problem-solvers to adjust it to make sense for students and teachers and parents.”

For now, the Ethan Rediske Act might signal the first step on the state-level. The bill is currently in the House K-12 subcommittee.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompsonA brief history of the FAA

The Florida Alternate Assessment was first administered in 2008 following several federal and statewide developments in education accountability:

1997-The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to develop alternate assessments for students with disabilities.

1998-Florida administers FCAT to every public school in the state.

2001-No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all schools, districts and states measure annual progress in performance among students, including those with disabilities.

2002-Florida develops the Florida Alternate Assessment Report for the U.S. Department of Education.

2008-The FAA is administered statewide.

The exemption process

1.  An individual education plan (IEP) team determines that a student is eligible for “extraordinary exemption” due to a circumstance or condition, as outlined in Florida Statute 1008.212 that prevents them from demonstrating understanding or ability of skills in the statewide assessment. (Note: A learning, emotional, behavioral, or significant cognitive disability, or the receipt of services through the homebound or hospitalized program are not necessarily grounds for an extraordinary exemption.)

2.  The IEP team, including the child’s parent, submit a written request for exemption to the district school superintendent at least 60 days before the current year’s assessment.
That request must include the following:

(a)?A written description of the student’s disabilities, including a specific description of the student’s impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills.
(b)?Written documentation of the most recent evaluation data.
(c)?Written documentation, if available, of the most recent administration of the statewide standardized assessment, an end-of-course assessment, or an alternate assessment.
(d)?A written description of the condition’s effect on the student’s participation in the statewide standardized assessment, an end-of-course assessment, or an alternate assessment.
(e)?Written evidence that the student has had the opportunity to learn the skills being tested.
(f)?Written evidence that the student has been provided appropriate instructional accommodations.
(g)?Written evidence on whether the student has had a chance to be assessed using the instructional accommodations on the student’s IEP allowed during a statewide standardized assessment, an end-of-course assessment, or an alternate assessment in prior assessments.
(h)?Written evidence of “extraordinary” circumstance or conditions as described in Florida statute.

3.  Based on the documents provided by the IEP team, the school district superintendent will decide whether or not to recommend the waiver to the Commissioner of Education.

4.  Once the Commissioner of Education receives the request, documentation, and recommendation, she’ll determine whether to grant the exemption, and notify the parent and the district school superintendent in writing within 30 days after the receipt. If the commissioner grants the exemption, the student’s progress will be assessed in alignment with the goals established in the student’s individual education plan. If the commissioner denies the exemption, the notification must state the reasons for the denial.

5.  If the parent of a student with a disability disagrees with the commissioner’s denial of an extraordinary exemption, he or she can request an expedited hearing, in which case the state Department of Education must arrange a hearing within 20 school days after the parent’s request. The administrative law judge must decide the case within 10 school days after the expedited hearing.

Sources: The Florida Department of Education; The Florida Legislature

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.