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September 6, 2003

Inquiry made into FCAT complaints

From: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, FL - Sept 6, 2003

By Jamie Malernee
Education Writer
Posted September 6 2003

An arm of the U.S. Department of Education is investigating multiple complaints that the state's testing system discriminates against Florida's disabled students.

Broward and Palm Beach counties are two of eight school districts the department's Office for Civil Rights is auditing as part of a "compliance review" of FCAT policies and procedures. The review comes after 13 complaints that the state and schools are violating disabled students' right to a free appropriate education by requiring them to pass the FCAT to be promoted to the next grade, and by failing to provide the special accommodations they need to take the test.

"When so many complaints come to the surface, you realize something is wrong with the system," said Genevieve Cousminer, an attorney and coordinator of advocacy services for the Coalition for Independent Living Options, a West Palm Beach group for the disabled that is one of the complaining parties.

Broward parents are also applauding the review. Cheryl Harter of Coral Springs said her deaf son is repeating the third grade at Tamarac Elementary this year because he didn't pass the FCAT. She says it's unfair Travis is expected to pass a third-grade reading test when he is being instructed on a first-grade level.

"I find the whole system ridiculous," Harter said, adding that her older son, Ryan, who is also deaf, also had trouble with reading when he was young.

"Ryan would not have passed the test when he was in third grade, and now he's graduating with honors and will be off to college," she said.

By the time Travis graduates from high school, he "will be three months shy of his 20th birthday," Harter said.

"How many kids do you know who are almost 21 who stay in high school? We're setting these children up to give up," she said.

Leah Kelly, director of Exceptional Student Education for Broward schools, doesn't think the inquiry will do away with the FCAT for special needs students -- but she said it could affect the way it is administered.

"Are there things, additional accommodations, not available last year that need to be in place? Absolutely," she said.

In a memo to the state, federal officials express specific concern that accommodations approved by a governor-appointed task force were not made available to students because of "time and logistical constraints." Among those accommodations available in 2004 but not 2003: teachers will be able to give some special needs students visual cues to help them with the test's directions, give extra examples for practice, audiotape the directions and questions instead of reading them, and provide a computerized version of the test.

Russ Feldman, executive director of Exceptional Student Education for Palm Beach County schools, said it is going to take enough paperwork to down "a small forest in Idaho" to comply with the federal review -- but he feels confident his district is following state law.

"The complaint is really against the state and the FCAT in general, not us," he said.

Shan Goff, deputy chancellor for student achievement with the Florida Department of Education, said the agency has worked hard to give options to students of different abilities and sees the review as "typical" procedure for the Office of Civil Rights to follow when receiving complaints.

"I think we've been very responsive. [Districts] have done a good job ensuring that accommodations were expanded and we're kind of looking forward to sharing what we've done," she said.

For a look at these accommodations, visit

State policy dictates that most students must pass the FCAT to get a standard high school diploma. Special education diplomas are available for some disabled students, but they don't offer the same opportunities.

Prompted by the governor-appointed task force and a growing outcry from the community, the Florida Legislature last year did approve a law that helps some youths obtain a high school diploma even if they failed the state's high-stakes test. The legislation lets a special education committee in each school district decide whether to grant a standard diploma to students who have twice failed the FCAT but still meet other state graduation requirements.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee said that federal law provides that whatever accommodation a disabled child has in the classroom should be allowed in testing situations. But she said state education officials didn't want to do that for the FCAT.

Jamie Malernee can be reached at or 954-256-4849. Staff Writer Linda Kleindienst contributed to this report.

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