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Disabled students can't work within demands of FCAT

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- The toughest problem for any governor is often neither the budget nor the Legislature, but making the bureaucracy do what he wants done.

It's not altogether the bureaucracy's fault. Experience teaches that it's easier to get in trouble for saying yes than for saying no. So no is the right answer, even when it's wrong.

But sometimes the reason is simply that someone, deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, thinks it's either too much trouble to do the right thing or, that no matter what everyone else thinks, the right thing is wrong.

I don't know which attitude explains why Florida's testmeisters have been cruelly mistreating students with visual impairment, dyslexia and other cognitive disabilities. Whichever, we are about to find out if Gov. Jeb Bush can, as he promised, put a stop to it.

At our last report on the situation, he had appointed a task force to recommend reasonable accommodations for disabled kids who could pass Florida's all-important FCAT test if some common sense was invoked. Bush acted after the bureaucrats had blocked a legislative reform.

Currently, blind students must be able to read the test in braille, even though it has long since been outmoded by talking computers. The blind student must also learn to use an abacus; talking calculators aren't allowed either. Yes, an abacus.

Worse, students who are dyslexic are expected to read like you and I.

To fail the FCAT, which is given first to 10th-graders and later to juniors and seniors who need to take it again, is to be denied a standard high school diploma. That means no college.

This is absurd. Every other test that these disabled students take, including the SAT, allows computers and calculators that talk. None of this nonsense applies to private schools, which are exempt from the FCAT.

I wrote last spring about a 17-year-old, straight-A superachiever at Port Orange who wants to be a doctor but is so severely dyslexic that he can't pass the FCAT. So far as the Tallahassee bureaucrats seem to care, he would swab floors, not throats.

Florida must have hundreds of high school seniors like him. Mid-March will be their last opportunity to pass the FCAT in time to go to college next fall. A final make-up test in June would, for many, be too late.

According to the Department of Education, there are 12,772 seniors who still need to pass the reading portion, and 9,933 who need another go at math. No one seems to know how many of these would have passed with the same accommodations as they are allowed for all other tests.

When Bush appointed the task force, chaired by a Pinellas County educator, Jan Rouse, he said he wanted reforms in time for the 2003 FCAT, and he made it clear that he wanted reasonable accommodations.

The task force report, submitted to the new Board of Education last month, was a slam-dunk for the kids and their advocates. It said the testing program "must be expanded . . . with the broadest possible array of reasonable accommodations, and alternate assessment options for students with disabilities . . ."

It took aim at pencil-and-paper answer sheets, which, it said, "cause the disabilities, rather than the abilities, of students to be measured."

Among the options: oral answers, interviews, demonstrations and, of course, "assistive technology."

It went on to spell out the laws and regulations that would have to be changed.

"It's a good report," says Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, who has been fighting for common sense in this matter. But, as she noted, "It's got to get done." Ausley will file the legislation, but the Legislature doesn't even convene until March.

So that leaves the fate of current seniors to Secretary of Education Jim Horne. According to his spokesman, Bill Edmonds, "the staff here is going through the recommendations to find out which ones we can implement without having to have a rule change, and those that in the judgment of the staff and secretary can be done without impinging on the credibility of the test will be put in place immediately.

"As many as we can," he said, "we will do right away under the secretary's orders."

Let's hope that "the staff here" doesn't mean the same people who didn't want to do anything in the first place.

One problem, as Edmonds pointed out, is that it normally takes months to revise a regulation.

However, the law also allows an emergency rule to be put in place virtually overnight if there is a perceived "immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare."

The department has made $4.5-million available to counties to help disabled students prepare for the FCAT. Horne called it "another example of our commitment to leave no child behind."

Trouble is, no amount of money can teach a blind or severely dyslexic child to read in the way the FCAT rules now demand. Least of all overnight.

This won't be the last word on this story. I hope the next one doesn't have to report that the bureaucrats won out over the kids again.

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