Friday, February 23, 2018
Education

Romano: Common sense, compassion lacking in state's stand on testing disabled students

For simplicity's sake, this column is divided into two parts.

Part I is about how state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is absolutely correct regarding the wisdom of giving standardized tests to children with disabilities.

Earlier this week, Stewart sent a letter to Florida teachers defending a state policy that declares standard assessments are mandatory for special needs students.

In the letter, she suggested it would be a "moral outrage" to treat students with disabilities any differently because of their challenging circumstances.

I say good for her. That is a stand worth taking.

Unfortunately, Part II is about how Stewart is also colossally wrong in her damn-the-torpedoes mentality regarding the issue.

The letter Stewart sent out was prompted by media coverage of the hurdles a Central Florida family had to navigate to have a son excused from a state test even as he was comatose and in hospice care.

Andrea Rediske addressed the State Board of Education just days after her 11-year-old son, Ethan, passed away last month, imploring them to allow more flexibility for parents and more discretion in extreme cases.

Rediske described how the long testing sessions required her son to stay upright in his wheelchair, which led to fluid pooling in his lungs and the deterioration of his health.

She explained that she couldn't simply ignore the test because that would have affected the job evaluation of her son's teacher.

"This incident … shows a stunning lack of compassion and even common sense on the part of the Department of Education,'' she told board members. "His exceptionally talented teacher faced threats and sanctions because she continued to work with him, even though he wasn't preparing for the (test).

"I wonder if these administrators are more concerned with policy, paperwork and their bottom line than the children they have been elected to serve.''

Now, admittedly, Stewart is in a delicate position.

It's her job to ensure that state policies are carried out faithfully. And it's undoubtedly a challenge to do right for students across the spectrum.

For instance, some parents are adamant that their special needs children be tested because they do not want the system to treat them as lesser students.

So, yes, Stewart has an obligation to the greater good.

On the other hand, she is no mere bureaucrat. As the education commissioner, she should not simply spout the company line when confronted with difficult situations.

In her letter to teachers, she described "political efforts to attack assessments'' as if there was no legitimacy to Rediske's complaints.

Stewart pointed out that nearly 1.7 million students took statewide assessments last year and that her department had approved 16 of 30 requested exemptions for this year. That means roughly one out of every 56,600 students in the state asked for an exemption, which hardly seems like an assault on standardized tests.

Instead of her knee-jerk defense of policies, Stewart would have been better off acknowledging that perhaps the process to seek an exemption could be streamlined. Less paperwork, fewer hassles, and the decision should not have to come from Stewart herself.

And, while tests are supposed to be tailored for children with disabilities, maybe there is also room to allow more parental input into the types of assessments given.

Stewart's response indicates she has no problem with the current system, which may explain why the state Legislature is getting involved.

Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel, D-Maitland, has filed legislation that would make it easier to obtain a testing waiver, and Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford has expressed a willingness to entertain the discussion.

In the end, we have to remember that tests are not the enemy. They can be helpful and even critical in the growth of students.

The problem is when we start treating the tests as if they are more important than the child.

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