Tests for disabled students may change

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Orlando Sentinel's Scott Maxwell talks with FOX35 about FCATs for profoundly disabled students.

Last week, I shared with you the disturbing stories of profoundly disabled children being asked to take standardized tests that defy common sense.

A tube-fed 10-year-old being asked questions about which fruit he would like to eat.

A 9-year-old blind boy being asked to identify a picture of a monkey.

The stories were as maddening as they were nonsensical.

These are kids struggling to do things like lift their arms or keep their gaze focused. Yet our test-obsessed education system required specialized teachers to spend as much as two week's time administering tests that had no relevance to these kids' lives.

That may soon change.

Officials in Tallahassee are now talking about changing the way Florida handles testing for students with profound disabilities.

Specifically, state Sen. Andy Gardiner of Orlando is working on legislation that would shift some of these testing decisions away from Tallahassee and over to local teachers and school officials … where they should have been all along.

Andrea Rediske — the mother of 10-year-old Ethan, who is legally blind, has cerebral palsy and gets his food through a tube — called the news "fantastic."

Yet Andrea's initial delight quickly faded into cautious optimism — and even skepticism — as she thought about how long and hard she has had to fight for a sensible education plan for her son.

"I was blown off by every elected official in this state when I started my campaign," she said. "Each one passed the buck to another, and nothing was done. But now that they're getting some bad press, they're doing something. Call me cynical, but that's what it looks like."

Indeed, the reaction to last week's column was strong.

I was inundated with notes from angry citizens, exhausted parents and frustrated special-needs teachers.

In e-mails, phone calls and on Facebook, people used words like "shameful" and "unconscionable."

The most-uttered sentiment: Where is the common sense?

Some special-needs teachers — educators for whom homebound education is a special calling — said they can see value in testing. And I can, too — if the tests are relevant to what these kids study and learn. The state should develop them.

For now, Gardiner hopes to streamline the process by letting local school officials decide who should be exempt from the Florida Alternate Assessment tests — the FCAT equivalent that more than 20,000 special-needs kids take each year.

Right now, the process of opting out is so top-down and bureaucratic that Florida's secretary of education must personally handle every request in the state.

More changes are needed.

Linda Stewart, a House Democrat from Orlando who was championing this issue long before I came along, said the state needs to also allow multiyear waivers so that parents of kids with profound disabilities don't have to wage this bureaucratic battle each and every year.

Rediske, after all, has plenty of other things to do — medicine to get, a wheelchair to adjust and nonstop insurance forms to fill out. "This could mean one less hoop to jump through," she said.

Gardiner's office said he is working with the Department of Education, as well as Sanford Republican Jason Brodeur in the House, who said his goal is to give parents more rights and "flexibility."

Stewart said the momentum for change is clearly there. They key is making sure all the good intents end up in successful legislation.

"Everybody agrees this makes no common sense," Stewart said. "It's got to be changed. And we can do it this year. We just need to take responsibility and get it done."

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

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