The Pasco County School Board and district officials are asking state officials to take another look at a state rule change they believe could have negative consequences on students with significant cognitive impairments.
Changes in the state rule, which took effect this school year, impact the district’s ability to deliver a modified curriculum to teach students with severe cognitive impairments and to evaluate them using an alternate assessment.
The rule change essentially eliminated the ability to use that approach for all severely cognitively impaired kindergartners, and severely restricted the option for all students who have an IQ of 68 or more.
The problem, according to the Pasco County School Board and the district’s administration, is that children who began kindergarten this year may have already been receiving a modified curriculum while enrolled in programs since the age of 2, but are not provided that option this year.
And, older students who had been receiving the less rigorous coursework — with the goal of helping them achieve to the best of their potential — can no longer qualify, except in extraordinary circumstance, if they have an IQ of 68 or higher.
Melissa Musselwhite, the district’s director of student support and services, laid out the district’s concerns during a Nov. 16 school board meeting.
During the session, school board members also expressed concerns and authorized school board member Colleen Beaudoin to work with Musselwhite to write a letter that will be sent to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, members of the state board of education, and legislative leaders. That letter is expected to be sent this week.
Musselwhite briefed the board on the background leading up to the current situation.
Years ago, the Florida Legislature recognized there’s a barrier with educating students with significant cognitive disabilities using standardized curriculum and assessments, Musselwhite said.
So, a state rule sets the eligibility criteria for students to be taught using a modified curriculum and evaluated through an alternate assessment.
But a state rule change that took effect this year removes the alternative option for all kindergartners, Musselwhite said. Now, they must be taught and tested using general education curriculum and standards.
That change does not take into account the severity of the child’s cognitive disability or the child’s IQ, she said.
Musselwhite said she’s concerned “that these students will start their educational career off struggling, which will impact them not only educationally, but socially and psychologically, as they progress through the educational system.
“For many of them, they will likely spend the rest of their education struggling, trying to catch up for what could be seen as a lost year of educational opportunity,” she said.
To force districts to comply with the rule change, the state deleted the kindergarten access courses from its course code directory — allowing only general education courses as an option for scheduling, Musselwhite said.
The state rule change also requires students to have an IQ of 67 or below, regardless of grade level, to qualify for the modified curriculum and alternate assessment, Musselwhite said.
That strict cutoff applies, except in extraordinary circumstances, she said.
The rule doesn’t take into account “other exceptionalities that may impact that student’s ability to learn or demonstrate mastery of the educational concepts taught to them,” she said.
For instance, she said, a student who has severe autism, language deficiencies, hearing impairment, orthopedic disabilities and an IQ of 68 would not qualify, while a student with an IQ of 67 and no other impairments would.
In essence, the rule bars the district’s staff and its Individual Education Plan teams from using their professional judgment in planning for and educating students, Musselwhite said.
She’s concerned that students who don’t meet the IQ standard, but have a multitude of co-existing disabilities, could be destined for frustration and failure.
Another big concern is that the rule change could affect students in any grade — meaning they could be going down one educational path for years and then suddenly be shifted.
She expressed it to school board members this way: “The arbitrary and capricious decision to impact a student’s education based solely on IQ score, without considering the student as a whole, and without taking into account that student’s individualized needs, is completely contrary to the underlying concepts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”
That act was created to protect students with disabilities and ensure they are treated fairly through the provision of a free and appropriate public education, she said.
Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to an educational plan that is specifically tailored to their individualized needs and abilities.
The new rule permits an exception to the 67 IQ limit, in extraordinary circumstance, but the Florida Department of Education would need to approve the process the district would use and, so far, no guidance has been provided on what a permissible process would be, Musselwhite said.
Musselwhite noted that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) permits the usage of alternate assessments, but limits that to 1% of the total student population.
The problem, Musselwhite said, is that the actual need for the approach in any particular school system could exceed 1%.
Musselwhite said the state is currently seeking comment for a waiver to exceed the 1% requirement.
School Board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said she thinks the results of this year’s state rule change may be an unintended consequence of trying to comply with the ESSA 1% rule. She said the district should pursue legislative action in the coming session to address the issue.
In later interviews, both Beaudoin and Musselwhite said they hope parents — whose children could face significant impacts — will express their concerns to legislators.
Beaudoin also said it’s important for the district to act on behalf of the students who could face negative impacts because of the change.
“If this was my kid, I would be up in arms,” Beaudoin said.
Published December 08, 2021