Florida education officials are taking steps to undo requirements that schools for students with significant cognitive disabilities are rated on the same scale as other public schools.
For the first time, Florida is including the performance of most students in its grading system this year, a concession the state made to have many of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law waived. Some of the changes meant including the scores of all students with disabilities and nearly all students learning English and grading special education centers where students with the most significant needs attend. The changes took effect at the same time the state's tests in reading, math, writing, and science became more difficult.
The result: School grades across the state dropped, and they could have plummeted further had the state board of education not taken action to keep any school from dropping more than a single letter grade. (That escape hatch disappears next school year.) And at schools that exclusively enroll students with the most severe disabilities, F grades are expected all around.
But in a letter to the editor published Saturday in the Tampa Bay Times, Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said that he understands the concern about applying the same performance standards to special education centers as other schools, "especially those with students who have significant cognitive disabilities."
"Under the leadership of the State Board of Education, the department intends to pursue legislative changes regarding alternative schools and exceptional student education centers that should alleviate some of the concerns expressed by school districts," Robinson wrote.
He was responding in part to criticism from the Hillsborough County School Board, where four special education centers are expecting F grades. The centers' only alternative to being graded like other schools was to have their students' scores count at the neighborhood school they might have attended if they didn't have a disability, schools that in most cases have never worked with these students. Some of the other special education centers around the state chose this route.
The question here is, will the federal Education Department allow such a change? Florida was in the first round of states to get an NCLB waiver. And Florida was one of three states given a waiver with a condition: Its accountability system had to change so that all students with disabilities and those learning English are included. If the state doesn't comply, its waiver will expire at the end of the next school year.
UPDATE: The Department of Education just told me that if a state wants to make changes to its approved waiver request, it would need to come in for an amendment that would be reviewed by the department to make sure its revised request still meets the the NCLB waiver flexibility principles. Because Florida's waiver is conditional, "we'd look closely at any amendments in this area," an agency spokesman said.
And how will parents of children with disabilities react to all of this? They are in a difficult position.
As one advocate told the Times in May, children with severe disabilities, of whom there are about 3,000 across the state, should be exempted from the new accountability standards.
But that shouldn't mean the state's 400,000 other students with disabilities should be left out of the new grading system. And there should be no incentive for schools to send students with disabilities to special schools where their test scores wouldn't be counted.
"If you open the door to any possible loopholes," Richard LaBelle of the Family Network on Disabilities, told the Times, "...then I think you are opening the door to a separate and unequal system."