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Disabled Students Closer To Graduation

By Letitia Stein | Tallahassee Bureau

March 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

TALLAHASSEE -- As graduation nears for the first senior class that has to pass the state graduation test, lawmakers in the state House voted unanimously Thursday to award diplomas to students whose disabilities interfered with taking the exam.

At the same time, a powerful contingency of minority lawmakers is asking for similar waivers on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for students who have been learning English for less than two years -- a more controversial proposition.

The waiver for certain disabled students has the support of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has vowed not to change his "A-Plus" accountability plan this year. But Bush faces growing pressure to retool the exit exam requirement that at least 12,772 seniors across the state have not passed.

Among them are scores of disabled students and recent immigrants who test so poorly that state officials do not include their scores in calculating school grades.

Taking the first step to address this concern, Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Panama City, vowed to have waivers for disabled students signed into law to help the class of 2003.

"We have been fast-tracking this to make sure that students who are graduating this year take full advantage of it," Kilmer said. "The governor is waiting for it."

Her measure (HB 1739) would allow special-education committees in each district to grant diplomas to students with disabilities who have twice failed the FCAT. The students have to meet other graduation requirements. There is a similar bill in the Senate (SB 2576).

For months, disabled students and their parents have lobbied lawmakers for such accommodations, arguing that high-stakes tests doomed these students to low-end jobs.

Rep. John Quinones, R-Kissimmee, meanwhile, has introduced a measure to exempt some students lacking language skills needed to pass a complicated test such as the FCAT.

His proposal would allow students with a 2.5 grade point average or better who have beenlearning English for less than two years to earn a standard high-school diploma even if they failed the test.

"I'm trying to make it more fair for the immigrant children that come to this country to understand the language before they take the FCAT," said Quinones, citing firsthand experience with their frustrations. As a teenager, Quinones spoke almost no English when he moved here from Puerto Rico and enrolled in school.

The controversial proposal of a freshman lawmaker has unexpected weight because of the importance of the topic to minority lawmakers. Co-sponsors are House Majority Leader Marco Rubio and Senate President Pro Tempore Alex Diaz de la Portilla -- both members of the powerful delegation of Cuban Republicans from Miami.

Chances of passage are uncertain in a Legislature dominated by conservative, white lawmakers.

But the proposal is certain to draw attention from Republican leaders who have made courting Hispanics a top priority in recent elections.

It also could create political tension for the state's bilingual governor, who enjoys tremendous popularity among Spanish-speaking voters. The governor has not taken a position on the legislation.

At the least, the proposal seems likely to stir debate about a graduation requirement that many educators consider unfair.

On FCAT testing days, language programs coordinator Dalia Medina is allowed to translate directions and provide dictionaries to students in the English-language classes in Osceola County. She also can give them extra time.

"The student may come here and want to do well and then they sit in front of a test, and they can't read or understand," Medina said. "It's very heartbreaking to say, 'OK, you can't graduate.' "

Researchers say that it can take five to seven years of English lessons to acquire the skills needed to succeed on a complicated test such as the FCAT.

A recent study by the Miami-Dade school district indicated that English-only standardized tests do not accurately measure the performance of non-fluent students.

The federally funded research found that immigrant students scored better on tests given in their native language, even after several years of English instruction.

"They still are having a problem performing on these tests," said Rodolfo Abella, a supervisor in the district's office of research and evaluation.

"They are not able to exhibit what they know in English, even if they know math or science."

That's been the experience of Osceola High School senior Joannimis Guerrero, 17, who has been taking classes for students learning English for at least two years.

On her fourth try, the Kissimmee student passed in reading. She still has to pass the math portion to use a scholarship she earned to attend Valencia Community College.

"You lose time, and you get frustrated because you can't find the answer," said Joannimis, a B student who wants to study fashion design.

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