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March 9, 2003

FCAT: Disabled students in crisis

From: Citrus County Chronicle, FL - 09 Mar 2003

Test rules stand in the way of honor student, others with disabilities

Mike Wright

Scott Jackson, a deaf student at Lecanto High School, is having to take the reading comprehension portion of the FCAT which he will likely fail without his interpreter. Jackson can't read, but says sign language, not English, is his first language. The state won't allow him use of his interpreter during the test, which he, his mother and at least one school board member call unfair.

The world doesn't owe Scott Jackson a dime.

Jackson has earned his keep.

The Lecanto High School student has a 3.8 grade point average. He's a member of the National Honor Society and is renowned as a motivational speaker.

Jackson is a leader in his junior class, a student who takes the hardest courses and is one of the area's top swimmers.

But unless someone at the state level changes a rule, Scott's senior year class will march at graduation without him. He'll be left behind, a top-notch student pegged for a lifetime in a low-paying job.

Here's why: For all his academic attributes, Jackson is virtually a lock to fail the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

That's because the first language Scott knows is called ASL, or American Sign Language. Jackson was born deaf.

By federal law, an interpreter has followed his every step in public school. The interpreter doesn't give Jackson an advantage in schoolwork or term papers, but rather "signs" for him the language found in the written word.

When Jackson took the FCAT last week, his interpreter was not in the room. By state rule, the reading portion of the FCAT cannot be interpreted by anyone. Students sit a desk, read the passage, then write answers to questions about it.

Reports at the Department of Education say all students, regardless of their ability, take the same reading test.

The reason is simple: The test is to gauge a student's ability to read and comprehend.

Still, it's an irony his mother cannot shake. The law requires an interpreter for every aspect of his school life, she noted, but on the one test needed to graduate, he can't have the interpreter present.

"This is the test that can change everything for him," said his mother, Holly Babyak.

Jackson is more direct. In an interview, interpreter Janie Stevens voices his comments. But asked to write what he feels, Scot printed this on a reporter's notepad:

"I feel not fair about the FCAT. I am a deaf student. Deaf students can't read for english in FCAT. I want change for rule the FCAT. I want allow for interpreter help for deaf students."

SUBHED: Written English is his second language The FCAT is entering its fifth year. Its controversy is based on the premise that schools, and now children, are graded for an entire year based on the results of FCAT reading, math, writing and, as was introduced this year in some grades, science.

This year, though, the results have become personal to scores of students and parents. Except for extreme cases, third-graders must pass the reading portion of the FCAT to proceed to fourth grade. High school seniors cannot receive a standard diploma this spring without passing the FCAT.

It's the first time students may be held back by not passing the FCAT, and it has students, parents and educators worried.

About 100 Citrus County high school seniors are in danger of not graduating because they haven't passed the FCAT, district officials reported, and half of those are in ESE, or exceptional student education.

Many ESE students have learning disabilities, so the anticipated FCAT results are not necessarily new to them or their parents, officials say.

But some others ? their exact numbers are unknown? have disabilities that do not impede their learning, but may negatively impact their ability to take this one test.

Jackson is in that group. According to his mother, he doesn't read words on a page like most people because he couldn't learn to read by sound. American Sign Language, which breaks down thoughts into simple-to-understand phrases, does not recognize some of the bigger words someone in the 11th grade is normally expected to know.

School board member Pat Deutschman has championed the cause of Jackson and others like him. She has introduced Jackson and a third-grader with autism, Caity Bryant, to state Rep. Charlie Dean and Sen. Nancy Argenziano, in the hopes they will change the law to allow special tests to meet the special needs of children.

"English for him is like a second language," Deutschman said of Jackson. "It's like the test is trying to trick him. When we learn language skills it's all done verbally. He's learned all his skills visually and through American Sign Language."

Dean, R-Inverness, admitted he was floored by the ability shown by Jackson and Caity, who attends Inverness Primary School.

"If you're not moved and you're not touched by these two youngsters and their ability to cope with their type of impairment, then you're heart's too hard," Dean said. "They touched me. I was moved when I left the meeting."

Dean has promised to support legislation that would design FCAT tests to meet the special needs of students.

SUBHED: FCAT too abstract for 'concrete' thinker Caity Bryant is a bright 8-year-old who switches between shy and vivacious with a visitor in the house. Her mother, Marianne Bryant, proudly showed off report cards and mid-term reports that have Caity getting an A or B in just about every class.

But Caity's challenge for the FCAT is much higher.

Why? As an autistic child, Caity reads and understands sentences in their most literal sense.

"Caity is a very concrete thinker," Mrs. Bryant said. During the FCAT, the state allows some concessions. Caity may take the test alone with her ESE teacher. She's given more time. The teacher may repeat and explain better the directions.

But it's the test itself that may give Caity trouble, her mother said, because the questions are too abstract for an autistic girl to understand.

Reading passages on FCAT, especially in the early years, often include objects such as a couch or mailbox speaking to another abstract object. Caity's mother said her daughter, who thinks in the literal sense, often can't get past the idea that a mailbox cannot talk.

"She could sit there for three days and have that long to take the test," she said, "and it still wouldn't help."

SUBHED: Deaf 'stay in one spot all the time' Jackson has faced tougher situations.

He grew up in New York and attended a school for the deaf. When the family moved to Florida, that meant he would be attending a public school where only two or three students were deaf.

"It was very hard," he said, mouthing the words and signing to Janie Stevens, the Lecanto High School interpreter who has followed him since middle school. "They (other students) were always looking at me and they couldn't understand from the sign what I was saying."

Stevens, a former district support person of the year, said Jackson works hard.

"I'm so proud of Scott," Stevens said. "He's amazing. He really stands out."

Scott also isn't shy about his opinions. He believes the FCAT is unfair ? not because it holds students to an achievement level, but that it sets unrealistic expectations for some students.

"Many people who are deaf, they struggle with reading," he said through the interpreter. "The deaf never get a chance to improve. They stay in one spot all the time."

School board member Patience Nave is a strong advocate of the FCAT. She said the state should do all it can to provide fair accommodations for students with disabilities. But as for the reading test itself, she said all students should pass it for a diploma.

"What we are saying with the standard diploma is, we are saying this graduate can read English," she said. "That is the standard for receiving a Florida high school diploma ? that you can read and you can write at the level that has been established by the Sunshine State Standards."

Deutschman said any test that could fail students like Jackson and Caity isn't fair if it doesn't provide alternatives that give them a chance equal to other students.

"Anything that's allowed in the classroom should be allowed when they take the test," she said.

From 10th grade, seniors have five chances to pass the FCAT before graduation. After this past week, Scott has two other tries before graduation in 2004.

Jackson has post-high school academic plans. He wants to attend Central Florida Community College for two years, then finish college at Florida State University. Jackson hopes for a career as a TV meteorologist.

Deutschman said a standardized test shouldn't stand in his way.

"Scott desperately has worked very, very hard. He has really high ambitions. He has great determination and drive," Deutschman said. "We should be ashamed we've put these kinds of barriers in the way of someone like Scott Jackson."

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