The State Board of Education spent all of six minutes at its meeting in June changing the rules for how special needs students are taught and tested in Florida. Now students, parents and schools are struggling with the fallout of that hasty decision.
The rule impacts students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, reports the Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey S. Solochek. Years ago, acknowledging the state’s general education standards and tests are not developmentally appropriate for certain children, Florida created alternate tests, thereby pushing these students to excel to the best of their ability. But state officials say Florida has more students eligible for these tests than a federal cap allows, prompting the state Department of Education to address how many children participate in alternative testing.
The changes include adding a set IQ level for the first time and requiring children to demonstrate their inability to make progress on general education standards even with added assistance over two grading periods. Students already in the system would be reevaluated to determine if they still qualify. Students new to the public schools would be placed in the mainstream population for two grading periods before being considered for the alternative program, even though in some cases it is obvious the student is not suited for the mainstream school population and would fail most of the classes.
The new rule’s more restrictive standards have caused upheaval across the system, worrying parents and educators who fear that many children will be placed in inappropriate educational settings. Abby Updike Skipper, a Polk County parent and special education advocate over the past two decades, equated the changes to taking a wheel-chair away from someone who is unable to walk.
The ramifications here call for a much-needed dialogue between the state, local school districts, special education instructors and parents. Florida Department of Education senior chancellor Jacob Oliva told the Times this week that it was never the department’s intent to put special needs students at risk of losing services. Oliva said school districts face no penalties for exceeding the federal cap, and that the change was designed to ensure that students were not under-served by restricting their educational pathways. This clearly remains a work in a progress that deserves bipartisan scrutiny when the legislative session begins in January.
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