For followers, the story of South Carolina mother, Gretchen Herrera, is familiar. For others, the story crystallizes the twisted nature of compliance-driven high stakes assessment regimes, which puts the health and well-being of children at risk. After denied exemption from standardized testing for her son based on a complicated medical condition, Mrs. Herrera filed a formal complaint with the US DOE Office of Civil Rights (OCR). In the jurisdiction cited by the OCR, it investigates allegations of regulations that discriminate against students on the basis of disability "by treating them differently (e.g. less favorable) from similarly situated students who are non-disabled." The OCR findings conclude that the complaint lacks sufficient evidence that discrimination based on disability occurred.
In South Carolina, limited reasons are permitted by regulation for a school to exclude a student from its reporting. Exclusions apply only to students who are homebound or not homebound, but physically/mentally unable to test on the days and make up days of testing, and have a physician letter, death, expulsion, incarceration, or transferring. Given these definitions, the OCR finding concludes that the reporting system works without discrimination.
Nevertheless, the finding leaves more questions than answers. The deeper issue regarding the rights of a parent to protect the health and well-being of their child remains unaddressed. Parents and children are caught in the middle of a reporting system that affects school grades and funding. What is in the best interest of the student is not part of the equation. The opinion of school-based and school-district staff was that the medical letter was opinion and did not qualify under any of the regulated exclusions.
In a U.S. Supreme Court determination, Troxel v. Granville, the justices relied on the 14th Amendment:
(a) The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause has a substantive component that “provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests,” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720, including parents’ fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children, see, e.g., Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651. Pp. 5—8.
In October, South Carolina Virtual Public Charter School "withdrew" the student citing the parent's failure to comply with the school rules. The student is homeschooled; however, receives specialized services in coordination with a middle school. Under this arrangement, the health, well-being, and specific educational needs of the student are the first priority and protected.
During the November 2011 Senate ESEA Reauthorization Hearings, a Kentucky teacher and witness described a terminally ill student who was denied exclusion from standardized testing, in spite of being barely able to breathe. Notably, the testimony received no follow up question by any Senator and only one follow up news report. In Correct the record in No Child Left Behind Hearing, Greg Skilling adds detail to the story. The teacher and school assistant principal filed papers and appeals without success; and finally, in spite of the lack of exclusion and instructions to begin testing, the school determined they would not test the child. Five months after the first submission of paperwork, the exemption was granted and a few months later, the child died. This event took place in 2007 and Skilling reports that the "Kentucky Department of Education is still investigating this case and has not reported any findings prior to the publication of this article."
Parent witnesses were not included at the ESEA Hearings in spite of mounting evidence of parent concerns over the effects of test-centric, compliance-driven accountability, and loss of parental rights. There are more of these stories that go unreported, underreported, and unexplored.