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Testing Students With Disabilities Grabs Lawmakers' Attention

Maria Rivera and 11-year-old son Luis Medina

While Florida legislative leaders remain largely opposed to big changes in the state’s school accountability program, there is momentum for small changes: at least for students with the most severe disabilities.

All public school students are required to take the state’s standardized tests. But for those who can’t there’s an alternative: the Florida Alternative Assessment. Only one percent of students take the FAA, but for some even the alternative isn’t a true alternative. A bill by Maitland Democratic Representative Karen Castor Dentel would make it easier for those students to be exempted from the exam. The proposal is being backed by Venice Republican Senator Nancy Detert.

Davenport mom Maria Rivera’s son Luis is one of the students who takes the Alternative Assessment. But Luis is blind and also can’t respond to prompts. Rivera says for Luis, the Alternative Test is pointless:

“In Luis’ condition, you can’t get a response. He won’t be able to answer you.”

The issue of testing students with severe disabilities gained attention in recent weeks when the mother of a brain-damaged Orlando boy had to convince the Orange County School Board her son could not take the exam. The boy died earlier this month. The Florida Department of Education has received 30 waiver requests so far.  It’s approved 16 of them, but DOE officials could not say how many of those waivers were for students with disabilities.  

"Ethan Rediske's heart wrenching story highlighted that our requirements for assessments can be uncompromising in the most extreme cases," said House Speaker Will Weatherford in a statement. "I appreciate the proposals presented to address the problem and I look forward to seeing them get a fair hearing this session."

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg say they’re open to proposals addressing the issue.

There is already a waiver process in state law, however critics such as the Florida Education Association, a teachers union—say the law is too restrictive. Student performance on the alternative assessment, just as the state’s traditional exams, play a large role in how teachers are evaluated and paid, and how schools are rated.


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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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