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Measuring Achievement: Students with Special Needs Prepare to Take the MEAP

A good day at school for 12-year-old Matthew O'Meara is a day when his muscles relax enough to allow him to sit. Holding silverware is a distant goal.

Matthew, who has cerebral palsy, attends Bovenschen School in Warren, a public school for severely handicapped children run by the Macomb Intermediate School District, or MISD.

This month, students across Michigan will take the MEAP test. Special-education students will be tested as well, much to the dismay of local educators. Some will take a test designed for severely impaired students like Matthew.

It's all part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires all public school students to be tested and their schools to be held accountable for how students perform. If scores don't measure up -- which they often don't with special-education students -- schools can face sanctions ranging from a loss of money to being shut down.

Leaders in Washington, D.C., took the law's name, No Child Left Behind, literally when the act was passed in 2001. They wanted to be sure that the progress -- or the lack thereof -- in subgroups within a school, such as special-education students, was not hidden under the scores of the school as a whole.

"The intention of the law is noble, which is to ensure that schools can't warehouse kids under labels, sort of abandoning their responsibility to teach them," said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Institute at Michigan State University. "The problem is, when you're talking about severely handicapped kids, when you're talking about kids who have just arrived in this country and don't speak English, it doesn't make sense to test these kids."

And that leaves Matthew's mother frustrated.

"I think those who want accountability think it has to be measured in numbers, and they don't take into account the physical conditions of the students or the medical conditions of the students," said Laurie O'Meara of Roseville.

No matter how Matthew does on his test, his school will be labeled a failing school.

Under the law, only 1 percent of a school's students can take an alternative to the MEAP. But every Bovenschen student is too severely handicapped to take the MEAP, so educators there administer the alternative test to everyone, knowing Bovenschen will fall into the failing category.

But the No Child Left Behind law is uncompromising. Recently, the state released the list of failing school districts. In most cases, special-education students were listed as a reason districts failed.

"It just isn't right; it's morally wrong," said Pat MacQuarrie, assistant superintendent for special-education and student services for the MISD. "How do we help people understand that we're dealing with students who have physical challenges, emotional challenges, cognitive challenges that go just beyond what the rest of the world might experience?"

Some special-education students will take the regular MEAP.

Across town, at a school for severely emotionally impaired teens, 23 of the 26 students are taking mind-altering drugs prescribed to help them get through the day. When they take the MEAP, those students may also be distracted by their recent court appearance, their battle to overcome substance abuse or their latest problem with any of a number of state and county agencies they deal with.

And almost inevitably, not enough students will do well on the test. So the school -- and the students -- will be labeled "failing."

"I think special education, in this whole picture, is just sort of an unintended consequence within the whole movement toward rigorous standards," MacQuarrie said. "No question, special-education teachers, administrators do need to be accountable for the students we serve, and we need to show results. But being able to show results on the MEAP test is not the answer."

Even more worrisome to educators is that No Child Left Behind is making special-education students a liability for schools.

It's more cost-effective to group special-ed students with the same handicap in one location -- for example, hearing-impaired students in one school, emotionally impaired students in another and severely retarded ones at yet another. Often, districts will open part of a school, or even a whole building, as a center for a specific impairment. Other districts send all of their students with that particular handicap to that center.

Privately, administrators are beginning to say they may not be able to continue hosting special-education centers. Those students' scores count toward their districts' score. That means that opening classrooms for impaired students can put the districts in danger of sanctions.

"I honestly don't think that those who wrote this legislation ever intended for a subgroup to become a liability to a school, but honestly, that's the risk you're running when everything else is fine, but a particular group denies adequate yearly progress status for the whole school," said Gayle Green, assistant superintendent for curriculum at MISD. "Especially for special ed, because special ed specifically says they're not going to learn in the same way or at the same pace as their peers."

But in the classroom, teachers are too busy to worry about tests. . Don Masserang teaches students whose IQs range from 30 to 50 at Glen H. Peters School in Macomb Township. One lesson Monday was practicing life skills such as folding towels and measuring ingredients.

Some of Masserang's students also take the alternative test.

"In other schools, everyone is taught the exact same thing, and then they're tested on the exact same thing," Masserang said. "In our school, everyone has a different goal because of the nature of their disability. I don't know how you standardize that."

Contact PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI at 586-469-4681 or pwalsh@freepress.com.

— Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki
Detroit Free Press


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