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Testing Gone Berserk

Under the new No Child Left Behind Act, by 2005 all states have to develop math, reading and science tests for the severely retarded.

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich.

FIFTEEN years ago, when Linda Mischley was looking for a public school for her severely disabled son, she moved hundreds of miles from northern Michigan to this Detroit suburb, so her Bobby could attend the Wing Lake Developmental Center.

Wing Lake serves the kind of children who, in a less civilized society, would be discarded as vegetables and hidden away in institutions. The 140 students, from the ages of 3 to 26, have I.Q.'s below 30. Ninety percent, including Mrs. Mischley's 22-year-old son, Bobby, wear diapers. Half are in wheelchairs. For the rest of their lives, they will need to be cared for by relatives or in supervised group homes. What touches Mrs. Mischley is how much love and effort the staff puts into the students, even when, as she says, they are no longer young and cute and even when they become adults in diapers.

The other day, Ray Hooton, who has taught at Wing Lake since 1976, was working with eight men in their 20's. He had each sitting at a table doing a task. They were quiet and busy. Michael was putting clothespins in a jar. Chris was trying to stick square blocks in square holes; many fell to the floor. Bobby was sorting plastic objects into six color piles.

"It's taken Bobby two years to work his way up from two to six colors," Mr. Hooton said. "We were just talking about adding another color or two.

"Michael's toilet skills are much improved. He's not fully trained, but we've been putting him on the toilet every two hours, and it's helped. Making progress at his age is great."

Thanks to Wing Lake, Mrs. Mischley says, she can take Bobby to a restaurant, and he no longer grabs food off strangers' plates. "I found a church we can go to and sit through Sunday service," she said. "He has learned the concept of time."

Given the students' limitations most cannot even use a pencil it is hard to believe that the federal and state governments have instituted standardized tests for these students, but it is true. And though parents like Mrs. Mischley; teachers like Mr. Hooton (Michigan's special education teacher of the year); the Wing Lake school psychologist, Bob Mossman; the principal, Thomai Gersh; and the district special education director, Carolyn Packard, all think that this testing wastes weeks of everyone's time and generates huge amounts of useless paperwork, the federal government will soon mandate even more standardized tests for these students.

When I asked Dr. James Rowley, a physician and the parent of a 9-year-old at Wing Lake, what officials were thinking, he replied, "I'm not sure they were thinking."

This bureaucratic adventure began with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1997 and the altruistic-sounding goal of testing every child, no matter how disabled. The Washington brain trust gave states five years to create a test.

But how to develop one test for so many children who are so severely disabled in such different ways? You can't, really. So what Michigan came up with and state officials say it is a national model are broad test categories like "interacting with print" and "participating in solitary physical activities."

It then becomes the job of the teacher, who knows the child best, to take that broad category and develop a specific test challenge for each child. So Mr. Hooton, knowing that his student Eric can walk down a hall with verbal prompts, has Eric walk down a hall, gives him verbal prompts and scores him 3, "meets criterion." And he knows that Paul, who is autistic and becomes distracted, can walk down a hall with physical assistance. So he has Paul walk down a hall, gives him physical assistance and scores him 3, "meets criterion." And he knows the best that Megan can do is sit in a wheelchair, and so Mr. Hooton wheels her down the hall and scores her 3.

It takes most of March for the teachers to administer the tests. Then they send all that paperwork to Lansing, wait a few months, and get back the exact information they sent. Participating in solitary physical activities. Eric 3, Paul 3, Megan 3.

Useless? "I can't say I'm getting anything out of it," Mr. Hooton said. "Parents don't either."

When I asked Peggy Dutcher, Michigan's director of special education testing, what the point was, she said, "It's the first time we've ever had a statewide assessment for all special education students."

But aren't teachers and parents just getting back information that they already know? "Reaction has been very positive," Ms. Dutcher said. "People are loving this. They're thrilled."

Those bureaucrats in their cocoons. People at Wing Lake did not sound thrilled to me. Ms. Gersh, the principal said: "We all just roll our eyes. Special ed is already so laden with paperwork, and now this."

Alice Johnson, a teacher, said, "We find out nothing that we didn't already know."

Joe Yankee, another teacher said, "We're not testing much of anything."

And Ms. Packard, the district coordinator said, "We have not found any good information from this."

The saddest part? For 30 years, there has been a superb, federally mandated assessment program for severely disabled students known as the Individualized Education Program, or I.E.P. Each year, Wing Lake teachers write seven-page narratives that are shared with parents, describing each student's abilities and goals.

The I.E.P. is far more comprehensive than anything a mainstream student receives. For a 12-year-old girl, for example, Ms. Johnson described how the child used "Beatles" as a generic word for music and could almost dress herself, "positioning the heel of the sock in its appropriate location and determining the top and bottom of the pants without confusion."

The I.E.P. is updated quarterly for parents.

So why the state tests? As veteran Wing Lake under the new No Child Left Behind Act, by 2005 all states have to develop math, reading and science tests for the severely retarded. teachers know, they are the educational fad of the moment. And they will grow worse. Ms. Dutcher, the state official, pointed out that under the new No Child Left Behind Act, by 2005 all states have to develop math, reading and science tests for the severely retarded.

— Michael Winerip
staff writer
New York Times
Testing Fad Achieves New Levels With the Disabled

2003-04-16

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/16/education/16EDUC.html?tntemail0

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