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School tells kid his service dog can't help him take a test

Theresa Edwards


Shark Wrestler

Theresa Edwards is a freelance writer and professional whiner. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family where she enjoys reading, roller derby, and complaining about the heat.

If you already had a problem with standardized testing, wait until you read this

When standardized testing makes the news lately, it usually centers on stories of kids whose parents have opted them out or are looking to opt them out of the high-stakes testing game. There are disheartening tales of stressed-out kids and pushy school boards, and the testing atmosphere has become so fraught that we're all pretty surprised when someone comes out and says, "There's more to life than Scantron bubbles." Even rarer, however, are the stories of kids who are willing to take the test and are still met with crazy amounts of stressful pushback.

But that's exactly why one mom is frustrated and fuming over a dustup involving a Florida standardized test and a service dog that left her autistic son in tears.

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Elizabeth Shea's 9-year-old son doesn't even go to the school the state test was proctored at. He attends Florida Virtual School from home but still had to show up at a neighborhood elementary school to take the required test. Since her son is autistic, Shea says she spent a great deal of time working with the school and proctors to make sure her son's IEP and ADA accommodations would be met during the testing period.

One of those accommodations is a service dog. Shea's son is one of a growing number of kids on the spectrum who benefit from having a service animal, and Shea says she let the school know that they'd have the dog with them when her son was testing. Here's where it starts to get a little dicey. Because Shea's son isn't yet old enough to handle the dog himself, a different certified handler has to supervise the animal instead — in this case, that's Shea herself. But when she showed up with her son and his dog to the school proctoring the test, she was told she had to leave but that the dog could stay. Unfortunately it's not really OK for her to do that, since the law requires a service dog to be under the control of its handler at all times.

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After much back and forth, Shea agreed to take the dog outside of the room while her son opened the test and signed his name, something that's referred to as "minimal participation," and the two would leave. Even that small disruption turned out to be way too much for Shea's son, who started hitting himself and crying. As she tried to explain that she would be nearby and that he just needed to write his name, the school told her that actually, no, she couldn't stay outside with the dog, since that would be in violation of the child's IEP, and so the two had to leave the testing facility without even meeting that minimal participation requirement. That means they're going to have to repeat this process, and Shea understandably does not have high hopes in that regard, according to The Washington Post.

Not that we can blame her. Testing requirements are extremely rigid in Florida, to the point where they defy common sense. Among the Florida testing horror stories include a mother needing to provide reams of paperwork to prove that her son was dying and therefore couldn't take the test, and a boy with a cognitive disorder being forced to take a test he had know way of understanding. This is just one more in a long line of lose-lose stories. Having Shea handle the dog would mean that her son's IEP provisions were met but would violate the state prohibition that bars parents from being present in the testing room. How do you make those two ends meet?

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Shea thought she had the answer: months of preparation, paperwork and communication with the school district and the virtual school. That ended up to be a pretty fruitless endeavor, because not only did her son become extremely agitated and distraught, but it turned out to be for nothing; he wasn't allowed to take the test at all.

It's no wonder that parents are preempting all the chaos by opting out of standardized testing not just in Florida, but nationwide. And if you're thinking this is just a bunch of millennial foot stamping, you're way off base — seasoned educators are leading the charge. They maintain that the tests are bad for everyone. They aren't a particularly useful gauge for what a child is learning, nor do they provide meaningful insights on teacher performance, and yet they remain some of the most common tools for measuring both.

Parents are being urged by experts like Diane Ravitch, co-founder of The Network for Public Education and former Assistant Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton, to opt out of the tests nationwide, with the hope that it will send a message to state school boards all over the country that something's fishy in education. That something is the tests themselves, and moms like Elizabeth Shea know that all too well.

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