1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: Florida scores high on hypocrisy and low on integrity in school tests

The state is insisting that Maddy Drew, 15, a Sarasota girl with cerebral palsy, take one of its standardized tests. With her are her sister Delaney and brother Jack.
The state is insisting that Maddy Drew, 15, a Sarasota girl with cerebral palsy, take one of its standardized tests. With her are her sister Delaney and brother Jack.
Published Apr. 10, 2016

She cannot speak, nor can she feed herself. She gets nourishment through a tube, and the medications she takes for cerebral palsy impede cognitive abilities. She uses a wheelchair, has the use of only one hand, and communicates by pointing to symbols on an iPad. She will never go to college, never hold a job and never live on her own.

And yet, because she is enrolled in Sarasota's school system, 15-year-old Maddy Drew must take one of Florida's infamous standardized tests. State officials insist on it.

When her mother asked that Maddy be exempted for medical reasons, the state refused. When she requested an appeal, the state declined to schedule a hearing. When she suggested she would keep her daughter home during testing days, she said two district officials told her that Maddy could be kicked out of her special-needs school.

"It's a form of bullying by the state,'' said her mother, Paula Drew. "Their plan was to bully me until I gave up.''

Maddy is not the first medically complex child to be forced to take a test against a parent's wishes, and she won't be the last. This state is addicted to for-profit testing, even as lawmakers continue to pretend otherwise.

"There is a huge priority on testing in this state and the question becomes, why? As a practical matter, what is to be gained from making this child take a test?'' said attorney Andrea Mogensen, who is representing Maddy in a Department of Education appeal.

"When something makes no sense, you usually find fiscal incentives or disincentives that are driving the decision.''

• • •

Year after year, state legislators talk about how parents should be in control of their children's educations. They chip away at public school authority by diverting education funds to private or charter schools under the auspices of providing more options.

In a recent bill, the word "choice'' was used 36 times.

Yet when it comes to standardized tests, parents get no choice at all. The test has become the focal point of the entire school year, dictating everything from curriculum to teacher evaluations to funding. If children skip the test, they are often told they run the risk of being held back.

This, as it turns out, is not entirely true.

State officials say a failing score on the third-grade Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) does not automatically mean a child will be retained, and that report cards and student portfolios can also be used to determine grade promotion.

Still, parents are complaining that schools have used scare tactics to convince children they must take the FSA.

Parents say the state threatens schools with a law that requires 95 percent of students participate in the test or else schools can lose funding. The schools then carry that threat down to children and their parents.

It is not the idea of a test that bothers many parents, but the idea that the test itself has overwhelmed schools.

"Instead of worrying about funds, shouldn't they be worried about what parents are asking?'' said Maria Schultz, a testing opt-out advocate in Hernando County. "Shouldn't they be worried about the students? They're making 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds responsible for their funding. The kids are pawns in this game.''

It's interesting to note that when legislators talk enthusiastically about providing parents with choices, the back-door beneficiaries are often charter and private schools run by businesses. And when legislators deny parents a choice about the FSA, the backdoor beneficiary is a testing corporation with a six-year, $220 million contract.

In other words, it might be less about "choice'' and more about commerce.

So the next time you hear a lawmaker say parents know best, you might consider the possibility that you're listening to a shameless hypocrite.

• • •

Standing before the Sarasota County School Board in February with Maddy sitting silently nearby in her wheelchair, Paula Drew painted a portrait of her daughter's life.

"I know that Madison will never go to college, get a job or leave home. I'm okay with that. All of the education and testing in the world is not going to change the fact that she's severely disabled,'' she said. "But, you know what, she's happily disabled and because of that, I'm okay. Yes, she's somewhat educable, but not to Florida's 'standards.' She goes to school to learn life skills. She goes to school to get social interaction.''

Ironically, Maddy might even enjoy taking the FSA.

She craves interaction and loves being the center of attention. She likes to laugh and has a mischievous streak. She has, in fact, taken standardized tests in the past.

But it's not how a test score might affect Maddy's future that worries her mother. It's how that score might affect her teacher's future. Or Oak Park, a school specializing in children with disabilities.

"This is not about my daughter. There is no benefit or harm in her taking the test,'' Drew said last week. "What worries me is why they insist she take a test that won't measure anything meaningful. Is it so they can blame her teacher? Do they want to get rid of special ed teachers and replace them with para-professional, low-wage earners?''

This is an extreme case, but it is also the crux of Florida's testing problem.

The state has become a slave to a testing company with no local oversight or accountability. It has allowed the education system to be swallowed by a single assessment. It has ignored parents and forsaken flexibility.

The problem isn't that Florida children are failing tests.

It's that Florida is failing children by obsessing over a test.