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.”

  • Thank you NCLB for this continual reminder of the ineffectiveness of State Required testing for many children. What a waste of the teacher’s time and the student’s time. I’m a former Special needs teacher as well as general education teacher and had to do this many times. There are so many more effective ways of evaluating a child’s progress.

  • Such an ineffectual use of the teacher’s time as well as the student’s time. Did this for many years as a special needs teacher. This is a terrible leftover from the NCLB mandate.

  • Rosemary N. Palmer

    While these stories are tragic, they also fail to recognize two things: 1) Florida School Districts generally have long histories of failure to education students with disabilities. The overall push for accountability is only marginally improving those results to date because districts generally have yet to implement peer reviewed research interventions effective for students with disabilities with fidelity. 2) Many, if not most of those who teach the non-verbal, do not understand that non-verbal does not mean unable to learn (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc or the Carly Fleishman one). Most are unaware of the research from several years ago showed that standard testing for those on the autism spectrum did not show their actual capability because it tested in ways that measured the disability instead. (See news article about the research http://consumer.healthday.com/cognitive-and-neurological-health-information-26/autism-news-51/standard-iq-test-may-undervalue-people-with-autism-628202.html). Most fail to provide sufficient effective interventions and then want to be excused from the result, suggesting it is the disability which prevents the progress.

    Even parents and many sped educators erroneously believe that students with disabilities cannot do things that they could, if only the parents and teachers acted on belief that they could. (See Pygmalian Study and Least Dangerous Assumption (google it))

    I recall teaching a seminar attended by a mother (a teacher of regular students) and sped teacher of an 8th grade student with Down Syndrome. Mother described how satisfied she was with the progress of the student, who she said did not read. After I asked her a few questions it turned out that her child did read sport scores and statistics of various players from the newspaper. But she had been perfectly content with services that did not include the state required reading instruction for her child. She had said how satisfied she’d been with the sped services the child received, and the sped teacher, who also did not know this child could read at least parts of the sports section.

    So I applaud the state in having strict rules about whom should be excluded from accountability for educating them. I’ve spoken to many parents who want their students with disabilities excluded from FCAT because they will fail. I tell them that that will help them get more appropriate services: that they should tell their children that high stakes testing is not designed to measure them at all. It is designed to measure the effectiveness of their instruction. All they have to do is their personal best, whatever that is.

    Dignity for students with disabilities comes from being allowed to learn instead of sentenced to the bigotry of low expectations.

    As for the issue of showing pictures to a blind person, that is a matter of inappropriate or insufficient accommodations or maybe failure to provide that child appropriate alternative communication or assistive technology — all of which are required already under federal law and Florida state rules. The FEA would be better served spending its resources in getting the appropriate instruction so that the teachers did produce results and the students could communicate and used assistive technology fluidly.

    Yes there are a very few who should be exempt. But there are plenty of good reasons supporting fldoe’s efforts to assure that its most vulnerable students are effectively taught to the full extent their disabilities permit.

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