Special-Education Pupils Face Big Test
The biggest challenge facing Josh Hunt's teachers last year was keeping the emotionally challenged freshman from running out of school into four lanes of traffic.
This year Josh's teachers at the Gateway School in west Orange County have a new challenge: They must make sure the 17-year-old and other exceptional-education students perform well on Florida's most important test.
Their school will be graded on how well they do.
When more than 1.5 million students across the state take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test next week, Josh will be part of a new group of students whose performance could have a major impact on their school. For the first time, the state is using scores from exceptional-education, learning-disabled and foreign-language students to help grade schools A to F.
While state and federal officials view the new testing rules as a way to make sure that even the most-challenged students are learning, some educators question the practice of giving standardized tests to students who are anything but standard -- and then using those scores to evaluate schools.
"It's really difficult to put their disabilities under the microscope," said Gateway Principal Patricia Taylor. "We can't say they have to be like everybody else because they're not like everybody else."
More than 500,000 exceptional-education students and 200,000 limited-English speakers will be taking the FCAT next week. Most of them have taken the test in the past, but it has never before influenced school grades.
Schools will be graded on how much those students learned in the past year. For schools like Gateway, where all 220 children are special-education students, the new rules mean the school will be graded for the first time.
At other schools with smaller numbers of special-education or limited-English-speaking students, their highly valued grades could go down, however.
The policy change brings Florida in line with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires that all but a few of these children be tested and their performance counted toward whether schools are making adequate progress in reading and math.
In 2002, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida schools had moved more children into disabled classes as the state required that FCAT scores be used to grade schools.
"Florida needs to be accountable for all students' performance not just selected students' performance," said Vivian Myrtetus, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education. "We expect every child to receive appropriate instruction and to make learning gains."
Testing children with mental challenges can be rife with problems, however.
Students are often medicated and can become disruptive under the pressures of testing. Even simple test-taking processes can be a challenge.
"We're still trying to figure out how to test these children to get accurate data and not cause harm to the students," said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Students, a nonprofit association for special-education teachers.
On true-or-false questions, these children are more likely than other students to read over a critical word, Van Kuren said. On multiple-choice questions, they are more likely to accept the first correct choice instead of reading all the choices and seeing that the answer might be "all of the above," she added.
Nationally recognized special-education teacher Carol Dinsdale of St. Petersburg said her third-grade students at Mount Vernon Elementary have customized learning plans that place them at first-grade learning levels. But they will be given a third-grade FCAT.
"It would be like giving a first-grader a third-grade book and expecting them to read it," she said.
Tension from a test may spark emotional flare-ups in students who are quick to lose control. A recent visit to Gateway revealed students who could not handle simple, everyday pressures.
A middle-school-age boy stood in an open-air hallway, pounded on a metal door and yelled obscenities at the principal. Soon afterward, a high-school student quickly ducked in the school office to get away from a youth who vowed to kill his potential victim.
Beyond the emotional sparks and side-effects of medication, Josh understands what may be the biggest challenge the FCAT represents -- testing the academic gains of students who have had to concentrate more on behavior than books.
"It worries me in a great many ways because it will show how far I've gotten," Josh said. "I've gotten far on behavior things, but how far have I gotten with school? I don't know. And I pride myself on doing well."
Before Josh was born, doctors detected hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. When he was a newborn, surgeons inserted a shunt from the cranium under the skin on his neck to alleviate some of the water buildup. He also suffers from cerebral palsy.
"You have to be careful. He lives on a roller coaster," said his father, Danny Hunt, a computer scientist for NASA. "He does really well, then he falls apart -- and it's usually when there's more pressure."
He said he likes the idea of getting all students tested but worries that the pressure from testing will make them panic.
Most teachers seem to recognize the perils of pressuring exceptional students to perform on high-stakes tests.
In a survey released this weekof more than 4,700 Orange educators, 81 percent reported that special-education students should not be required to meet the same standards as other students in the school.
In comparison, 64 percent said students with limited English skills should also not be measured against other students.
At Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg, Dinsdale said she fears that schools may begin to resent special-education students if their test scores negatively impact the school grade.
"My major concern as an ESE [exceptional-student education] teacher -- for years we have been advocates to have students included as much as possible," said Dinsdale, national teacher of the year for the Council for Exceptional Children. "And what worries me is that when . . . these scores are disaggregated and people see it's the students with disabilities holding the schools back, that schools won't want these children on their campuses."
In early February, Josh took the writing portion of the FCAT. He had to identify something that was special to him and write about it. He wrote:
"My brain because it symbolizes strength -- by the knowledge if feeds me by dreams endurance -- by the many seizures I have had and comas and parts where I don't breath and I have survived it all
I have knowledge through sleep and school, sure I cant hold it all in because of the damage ive suffered but I still have more then they thought I would
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