Nine-year-old Robert Mattox Johnson wants to show off his golf ball collection.

He eagerly shares his three favorites with a stranger, and he tells his mom, "I love you," before scooting into another room to watch TV.

Johnson's behavior disorder isn't immediately apparent, but he has impulsive control disorder and his sweet demeanor can turn into physical aggression the moment he feels frustrated.

It's one of a number of behavioral and learning disabilities Mattox has, but none of those exempt him from taking the state's standardized test.

Federal and state laws hold schools accountable for the achievement of all students, including those who have disabilities such as Mattox. In South Carolina, that means all third- through eighth-grade students must take the state Palmetto Assessment of State Standards.

Few exceptions are permitted, and Sarah Johnson, Mattox's mother, believed it would hurt her son to take an exam for which he was unprepared. School officials said that would violate state and federal laws, but Johnson refused to do what she said amounted to putting the law before her son.

"I feel bad about his (zero) score hurting the school, but you need to look at the child," she said.

Her experience raises questions about parents' rights in their children's education, and her situation highlights the concerns some have about the fairness of testing disabled students and whether they should be exempt from testing.

Who takes PASS?

The same team that manages disabled students' Individualized Education Programs decides how to test those students. The accommodations for those students, such as having the test read orally or for an extended time, typically are the same ones the student uses in day-to-day lessons.

Alternate assessments can be used for students who have severe and profound cognitive disabilities, but only a small subset of students with disabilities qualify for that. About 10 percent of the school district's 43,800 students have disabilities.

Although the state permits score exemptions for certain students, it still requires all students to take the test. School and district leaders have no power over that mandate.

After testing everyone, the state will exclude scores from certain students who: were medically unable to attend school; were homebound and unable to test; withdrew from school during testing; incarcerated; died; experienced a death in their family; or withdrew from school because of unlawful absences.

Charleston school leaders said they rarely have encountered a parent who has refused to allow their child to be tested, but it is common for parents of children with -- and without -- disabilities to be concerned about their children's ability to perform well on the exam.

Mattox's situation

Mattox enrolled in Belle Hall Elementary in Mount Pleasant in late April after spending more than four months in MUSC's STAR program, an outpatient day treatment to stabilize children with severe emotional and/or behavioral problems. Among other criteria, admitted children must have demonstrated behavior serious enough to jeopardize the safety of others.

Mattox has anxiety, sensory and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, all of which affect his behavior, and a language-based learning disability means that he has the IQ to learn but struggles with reading and writing.

He'd been showing signs of improvement since being discharged from the program, but his mom said he still was in a fragile, transitional period. He'd grown accustomed to the STAR program's daily schedule, and his mom wanted to keep him in that routine.

She feared subjecting him to the rigorous PASS test that started 10 days after he enrolled at Belle Hall Elementary would frustrate him and cause him to lose the progress he had made with STAR. And he hadn't been taught any of the third-grade information on the test; his academic lessons were relegated to improving his beginning reading skills.

"It would be setting him up to fail," his mother said.

She had a note from his STAR doctors saying he was mentally unable to be tested, but that still wasn't enough to exempt him from testing unless Mattox were unable to attend school. A child who was homebound would be exempt from scoring, but if a child were well enough to go to school, the laws require him to be tested, officials said.

Although school district officials disagreed with Johnson and said they wouldn't be following state and federal requirements if Mattox were present but not tested, they eventually relented and said Mattox could attend school and wouldn't be tested. Mattox continued going to Belle Hall Elementary during PASS testing but did not take the exam.

Going forward

Belle Hall Elementary will be penalized when officials compile students' results. The school will take two hits, one for Mattox's not being tested and another for his score, which would be counted in with his peers as a zero. Those penalties will be factored into state and federal ratings grading the school's performance.

Sarah feels as if it's discrimination to require mentally unable students to take the exam when physically unable students are exempt, and she's filed a federal Office of Civil Rights complaint to that end.

Johnson also feels as if Charleston and state school leaders have retaliated against her for filing the complaint, saying John Emerson, the school district's attorney, persecuted her in a letter for advocating for her son and blamed her for Mattox's academic deficiencies. She included that information in her letter to the civil rights office.

Federal officials said they were prohibited under federal privacy laws from identifying anyone involved in its cases or complaints, but they confirmed two complaints alleging disability discrimination had been filed recently against Charleston County School District. Those are being evaluated to determine whether the allegations are appropriate for the office to investigate and resolve, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Emerson said his response to Johnson was in no way reactive to her complaint -- "that is her right and we respect that" -- but an effort to put in writing why district officials conceded that Mattox wouldn't be tested if he attended school.

"In the end, we cannot force a child to take the test," he wrote. "However, neither can we control the consequences. To be perfectly clear, Robert was not 'excused' from taking the test, as no legal excuse was identified for his failure to do so. … the reason Robert was permitted to refrain from taking the test was due to the parent's refusal to allow it."

District officials wouldn't take a position on whether it was fair for students with disabilities to be tested and said this was about following state and federal laws.

"It's about measuring the school and district performance," Emerson said. "That's the way the standards are applied."

Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.