High-Stakes Testing for Disabled Students: A System ‘Gone Horribly Wrong’

Eleven-year-old Florida student Ethan Rediske was born with brain damage. Even though he was blind, had cerebral palsy, and had trouble saying basic words like “yes” or “no,” he was forced to take a state-mandated standardized test over a two-week period last year. After a long struggle, his mother finally got him a waiver, only to have to prove to the state again this year that Ethan was in no condition to take the test. He was in a morphine coma, she told officials. But they weren’t satisfied.

Every student must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) or the Florida Assessment Alternative, given to students with disabilities, in order for the school to receive state support. Waivers, even for the most severely disabled students, are very hard to come by. Parents must jump through a series of hoops, including winning approval of the local superintendent, as well as the state education commissioner.

“The education accountability system has gone horribly wrong,” says Florida Education Association (FEA) president Andy Ford. He says the testing craze has disturbing consequences, particularly for disabled students.

To illustrate how futile and outrageous the testing is, FEA produced a video showing teachers – required by the school system – administering the alternative tests. They must hold up pictures before students who are blind, and read questions to kids who simply can’t understand the words, let alone respond. Many of the students in the video are in a vegetative state. Straps and buckles keep their bodies upright in their wheelchairs. Their eyes are closed or unfocused. Most of them have the brain development and cognition levels of an infant.

“It’s disrespectful to the students,” says Florida special education teacher Kathleen Nall, who has been repeatedly required to administer the tests to profoundly disabled students in her school.

Video: Our Students Are More Than a Test

The FAA for disabled students is far different from the tests given to mainstream students, and would certainly be appropriate for many learning and physically disabled kids. The thinking goes that every student can learn something, and then be tested on that knowledge.

Unfortunately, the testing regime didn’t account for the profoundly disabled when designing the alternate tests, and it requires more cognitive function than these students have.

For example, Ethan was asked a question about what happens when he eats peach. Only Ethan had never eaten a peach, or an apple — or anything for that matter — because he couldn’t. He was fed through a tube.

Ethan’s mother Amanda, desperate to protect her son from the useless and damaging indignity of the tests, wrote to school officials:

Ethan has been required to take the Florida Alternate Assessment for the past two years, and in addition to the questions being entirely inappropriate for his level of cognition (he cannot comprehend questions about math, staplers, clocks, shoes, or even food) there is no way to accurately assess his understanding of the material being presented… Additionally, the testing procedure is extremely physically taxing for him, requiring him to sit in his wheelchair for long periods of time and focus on black and white pictures which are difficult for him to perceive at best… After the testing sessions, he is physically exhausted and often develops pressure sores from sitting in his wheelchair. He also has developed respiratory infections from fluid pooling in his lungs from the long testing sessions.”

She traveled to Tallahassee to make her case and was given a waiver for one year. When she tried to get the waiver for Ethan when he was in a coma this year, tone-deaf state officials still required her to prove he couldn’t take the test.

One of Ethan’s teachers came to visit him often. She wanted to provide comfort and to spend time with him, knowing that he wasn’t going to wake up from the coma. Aware of her frequent visits, the school system asked her to provide them with medical updates and paperwork that they could use to continue his medical waiver. They even required that the hospice company send a letter confirming that Ethan was dying and would be unable to take the test.

The state’s foremost concern is not what’s good for students, says Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall. They are more concerned with following a rigid adherence to the test.

“These high-stakes tests are valued above everything else by those who set education policy in Florida,” McCall said. “They are valued more than teachers and other school employees, they are valued more than administrators and local officials who run our schools and they are valued more than the children we work with each day to educate and prepare for their lives as respected members of our society.

“We need to bring some sanity to this testing madness.”