Severely disabled students a Florida blind spot

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureauFebruary 27, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- While her 11-year-old son Ethan lay dying last month, Andrea Rediske had to convince the boy's school district he could not take the state tests.

Ethan's teacher made daily visits to assess his progress -- even when he was in hospice care.

"Seriously?" Rediske wrote in a Feb. 4 email to Orange County School Board member Rich Roach. "Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his sixth-grade hospital-homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. We expect him to go any day."

The boy died three days later.

As state education officials work to overhaul the education accountability system, the plight of severely disabled students like Ethan and their teachers is gathering increasing attention in the halls of the Florida Capitol.

On Wednesday, the state teachers union released a 10-minute video showing Polk County teachers giving standardized tests to four students with severe disabilities.

Separately, a Pasco County teacher raised concerns about testing special-needs students in a letter to Superintendent Kurt Browning. Her words carried to the highest level of state government, capturing the attention of Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford.

"We need to do something about this for sure," Weatherford wrote in an email to

Browning last week.

Florida lawmakers are poised to take action.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, filed a bill to make it easier for students with disabilities to receive testing waivers.

Weatherford said he is willing to consider it.

"Ethan Rediske's heart-wrenching story highlighted that our requirements for assessments can be uncompromising in the most extreme cases," he said 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."

Weatherford may also be open to tweaking the teacher evaluation formula to provide some leeway to special-education teachers, he said in the letter to Browning.

All students in Florida public schools are required to participate in the state assessment program.

The education department is in the process of selecting new tests. For now, most children take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and the state end-of-course exams. Special-needs students can take an alternate assessment, and those with extreme disabilities can apply for an exemption from testing. But the request must be approved by the superintendent and the state education commissioner.

About 1.7 million Florida students take the annual statewide assessment. The education department received a total of 30 requests for exemptions from this year's assessments, a department spokesman said. Sixteen have been approved.

Ethan Rediske was granted a waiver only after his mother reached out to the media, his mother said.

The video released Wednesday by the Florida Education Association featured four special-needs students from Polk County who had to take the state tests.

Among them: 11-year-old Luis Medina, who is blind and in a persistent vegetative state.

In the video, a teacher shows Luis a series of drawings and asks him to answer questions. The boy, who has suffered brain damage, cannot understand or communicate.

"Right now, how they are testing my child is not the right way," said his mother, Maria Rivera. "He cannot tell you what he thinks or what he sees."

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart defended the use of assessments for all students.

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