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FCAT should oblige disabled

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Seventeen-year-old Gary Lester of Port Orange is a student any college would want. Straight A's. National Honor Society. Junior Class president. Winner of a writing contest. President of the Atlantic High School chorus. Winner of a $2,500 Discover scholarship and contender for a grand prize.

But as matters stand, none of Florida's state universities or junior colleges could admit him. Because of severe dyslexia, he has failed Florida's increasingly controversial FCAT test. He would still graduate, but without a standard diploma. Without that, no college.

Lester would easily pass the FCAT if he were allowed to take it in the same way he learns his lessons and aces his regular exams: by listening to tapes or having someone read to him. When he hears a test question, the answer comes readily. But what his eyes see, his brain can scarcely convert into words.

"He can read a little bit, but not enough," says his mother, Ann Lester, a special education paraprofessional who works with severely disabled students at her son's school. Yet "there's nothing the child hasn't done, and he wants to be a doctor some day."

But first someone has to move a mountain. The mountain is the Florida Department of Education, whose rule demands that reading items on the FCAT "must be read by the student through visual or tactile means."

That means blind children must learn braille, even though it is cumbersome and outmoded in today's world of talking computers. To children with dyslexia and related learning disabilities, the message is even harsher: tough luck.

Rest in peace, common sense. The object of the FCAT, like any other test, should be to determine what students have learned and what they understand, not how they acquire and process raw information. The department has that backward. By its rules, Nelson Rockefeller -- governor of New York and vice president of the United States -- probably could not have earned a standard Florida diploma. He, too, was dyslexic, and needed special tutors. With their help, he graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth.

Federal law guarantees learning-disabled children the same accommodations in testing as in the classroom. Florida invokes an exception: Accommodations need not compromise the "validity" of the test. This is, of course, artful bureaucratese. It's like saying blind persons shouldn't be allowed guide dogs because they wouldn't learn to find their own way.

Cathy Mizereck, the department's lobbyist, argues that tough testing standards are essential lest schools slack off in their efforts to teach children who don't learn as easily as others. She has a point. It should not be too easy to label students "exceptional." The point would be more telling, however, if the FCAT scores of children with classified learning or emotional disabilities weren't excluded from their school's rating. It is not clear how holding the score against only the student induces the school to do a better job.

The department says the FCAT requirement can be waived but that it gets barely a dozen applications a year. Gary Lester hasn't applied for one, said his mother, "Because nobody seems to know how to help me get it."

I heard about Gary from Sylvia Smith, program director for the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, in Tallahassee, which is preparing to sue the state, for him and for others, if the problem can't be solved by more peaceful means.

There is hope. Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed an 11-member task force "to review and recommend reasonable testing accommodations for students with disabilities." Smith is one of the members. Jan Rouse, an assistant school superintendent in Pinellas County, is the chair. In announcing April 3 that he would do this, Bush made it clear that, among other things, he wants the panel to open the door to the colleges. In setting an October deadline for its report, and in asking the Board of Education to adopt "necessary rules" by Feb. 1, the governor seemed to be calling for a solution before next year's FCAT tests. That would come in time for Gary Lester, but too late for perhaps hundreds of students who were denied standard diplomas this year.

Advocates for learning-disabled children had a mixed reaction to the governor's decision because it pre-empted a possible legislative solution, endorsed by the Senate but opposed by Bush's staff and the department, two days before the end of the regular session. But for now, Smith and other advocates, including bill sponsor Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, are willing to give the panel a chance. They're encouraged by the fact that the governor has, in effect, made himself responsible for a satisfactory recommendation before the election.

"We're very concerned about a myriad of impacts that FCAT is having," says Smith. "It's not just whether kids get accommodated in testing. It's whether or not this particular scheme is resulting in kids being excluded from general education just to help generate better scores. It's got to be fully revealed and corrected so that it's good public policy and not bad public policy."

The bad policy includes this: Some public schools have been advising learning-disabled children to transfer to private schools, which can grant standard diplomas regardless of the FCAT. Others are being coached to drop out entirely and take the GED exams as an avenue to college.

Those are not options where Gary Lester's parents are concerned

"I just will not stand for Graduation Day to come and him not get a regular diploma," Ann Lester said. "It's not going to be. . . . We're going to win it."

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