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Tallahassee's test bullies

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- To a very limited extent, I am coming to share Gov. Jeb Bush's vision of empty state buildings. The one I have in mind houses the Department of Education. It would be better off not just empty, but torn down brick by brick. Then the ground should be salted so nothing could grow there again.

There are doubtless many good people who do indispensable work there. But it is also where Florida administers the notorious, misused FCAT test with stunning disregard for fair play and common sense.

The FCAT itself reflects horrible policy: the use of a single test, not designed for the purpose, to determine whether a child is to be promoted or graduated and to set school against school in a Darwinian competition for support and survival. A specific issue, as I have been reporting for a year, is the mistreatment of children with dyslexia and related learning disabilities.

On every other school day, and for every other test -- including college admission -- they are entitled to the help of human readers or technologies such as talking computers. This is because it is as difficult for some of these dyslexic kids to "read" visually as it would be for the governor to flap his arms and fly.

Yet the FCAT testmeisters require that they read. No passing score, no standard diploma. No standard diploma, no college. Tell these Tallahassee bullies that this is unfair, and they reply that the "reliability" of the test is more important. FCAT uber alles.

This isn't just wrong. It borders on sadistic.

The Legislature might have righted this last year but the bureaucracy got its hooks deep into the House staff and blocked the bill. As a compromise, Gov. Bush appointed a blue-ribbon task force, which rendered a very good report. It said that the FCAT program "must be expanded . . . with the broadest possible array of reasonable accommodations, and alternate assessment options for students with disabilities."

Easier said than done. Glaciers move faster than bureaucrats who don't want to move at all.

On Thursday, at Volusia County's Atlantic High School, a senior named Gary Lester, a superachiever in every other respect, sat for the FCAT for the eighth time. He needed all day to get through just two of the passages that students must read well enough to answer questions about them. He will try to finish on Monday.

They give him as much time as he needs, but not what he really needs: a spoken voice to bypass what's miswired in his brain. "It's tough when you don't have somebody there to read it for you as I have in the classroom," he said. "It's very stressful. I try my best to do the test and get through it, but it takes me hours."

Having missed by only nine points when he last took it in October, Lester might make it this time. But if he doesn't, there's not another chance before graduation. State law would allow him only a certificate of completion, thwarting his hoped-for enrollment in a junior college and his present goal of becoming a chiropractor. (Sen. Dennis Jones, please note.)

The Volusia County School Board has applied to the state for a special exemption for him. It is threatening to sue the state -- right on! -- if the waiver is denied, as most such requests seem to be.

"The School Board and I have reviewed this matter and believe the school district has substantial interest in seeing that this student receives a standard diploma," wrote the superintendent, William E. Hall. "Given his mastery of the Sunshine State Standards, it would appear that granting him a diploma is completely appropriate. "

Meanwhile, reformers in the Legislature are struggling uphill to accomplish what the task force recommended. For example, Sen. Ray Wise, R-Jacksonville, complains the bureaucracy refuses to concede that accommodations stipulated in a student's individual education program should apply to the FCAT.

The bureaucracy must still be pulling strings in the House; Rep. Loranne Ausley's HB 253 has been referred to six committees. Among other things, her bill requires "any reasonable accommodation" that could not be proven to jeopardize the test.

"We're coming around a little bit," Education Secretary Jim Horne told me last week. It would have been "tough," he explained, to implement all the task force recommendations before this month's FCAT. I had the impression, however, that Horne didn't really know just how stubborn his people are. The education building bears the name of former Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington, who had also been one of Florida's greatest legislators. I called him Friday to explain why I wanted "his" building torn down. He was astonished at how the dyslexic children are treated.

"That simply should not be," he said. "There has to be some procedure that takes some common sense into account."

What a lovely idea. If only common sense came at the drug store.

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