Schools Grapple with Standards for Special Education Pupils
"It's reasonable to raise the bar for all students. But to insist that all students will reach that bar . . . may drive some kids out of school."
--MARK WILLIANS, North Kingstown teacher
Colt-Andrews School was a high-performing elementary school until two years ago, when statewide tests disclosed that one category of students -- those with disabilities -- was not making enough academic progress.
Suddenly the school, located in a century-old, granite building in downtown Bristol, was labeled "in need of improvement." The principal and faculty members were stunned, hurt and, initially, demoralized.
Then they buckled down to do the hard work. They put special education teachers into regular classrooms to work one-on-one with students who were struggling with math and English. They studied individual test scores to see where students were weak. They made sure that special education teachers had time to collaborate with the rest of the faculty.
"We worked our butts off to get those scores up," said Colt-Andrews principal Stewart Armstrong, "and last spring, we made all 21 of our targets. We had some of the highest scores in the district."
But Colt-Andrews' success came back to haunt it. Because its special education students improved so much, the group was no longer big enough to be tested as a separate category.
For the school, that was cause for celebration.
But it triggered a review by the state, which, after analyzing three years of test scores, found that special education students had not made enough progress.
Suddenly, Colt-Andrews found itself "in choice," which meant that it had to tell parents they could transfer their children to another school.
"Boom! I told the staff that we didn't make it," Armstrong said. "Then, I told them that we were appealing the ruling. Finally, I told them that our appeal failed."
Teachers felt blind-sided. Armstrong felt frustrated. And most parents didn't understand why a school that had always been a highflier had suddenly fallen so low.
"It's not that we don't want to do the work," said Bristol-Warren Schools Supt. Edward Mara. "These kids deserve to succeed like everyone else. But don't punish the whole school."
THANKS TO the federal No Child Left Behind law, states must test all students, and those results count toward each school's overall score. The law even applies to students with special needs -- from those who have trouble reading to those with attention deficit disorder to those with mental retardation.
While few educators disagree with the goal of No Child Left Behind -- to set high standards for all children -- they question whether it's fair to ask children with learning disabilities to not only take the same test as their peers, but to reach the same bar.
"If they were able to function at their grade level, they wouldn't be in special education," said Susan Ohanian, a nationally known author on special education and a critic of No Child Left Behind. "It's absolutely cruel and unusual punishment to put a test in front of them that they can't handle."
Ohanian said it makes much more sense to measure children's progress over time by giving them work appropriate to their disabilities. She also worries that the obsession with testing will produce a backlash against the very students the law is trying to help. If a school doesn't improve because of its special education students, the public will blame those students for holding the school back.
But others say that No Child Left Behind is finally putting pressure on schools to raise the bar for all students.
"I'm convinced that we have had too low an expectation of students with special needs," said John Herner, a professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, who is an expert on testing and accountability. "NCLB is the first real lever that says we are going to be accountable for all kids and that it's our job to figure out how to teach them."
Until recently, many students with disabilities have been treated as second-class citizens. Less was expected of them, fewer resources were devoted to them and, in some cases, they weren't tested to see whether they were making progress.
That began to change in the early 1990s, when parents and school reformers demanded that children in special education be returned to the regular classroom.
No Child Left Behind upped the ante. Now, schools that don't make enough progress face sanctions ranging from having to offer afterschool tutoring to being taken over by the state.
In Rhode Island last year, a dozen schools out of 316 failed to show academic progress, specifically because their special education students didn't hit their performance targets.
Statewide, the gaps in test scores are dramatic. In the fourth grade, only 25 percent of special education students achieved proficiency in math, versus 50 percent of the general population. In high school, 10 percent of special education students performed well, compared to 40 percent of the general population. A similar disparity exists with the English test scores.
Nearly 33,000 students in Rhode Island's public schools are considered special needs.
THREE YEARS ago, before No Child Left Behind became law, Garden City Elementary School in Cranston embarked on a risky experiment: it placed all of its special education children in regular classrooms.
No longer would these children lose valuable lesson time during remedial "pull-out" sessions. No longer would children with disabilities be held back by low expectations.
To make this work, special education teachers are teamed with regular classroom instructors so students with disabilities get the individual attention they need while being exposed to challenging work.
Principal Norma Cole says the results have been nothing short of extraordinary: "We have seen children grow in every way: socially, emotionally, academically."
While Cole praises No Child Left Behind for raising the bar for special education children, she also says it's "pointless to put a fourth-grade test before a child who reads at the second-grade level. It makes them cry."
The focus, Cole says, should be on how special needs children improve over time, not whether they score well on tests beyond their capabilities.
"To punish schools where there may be a large proportion of children who have disabilities . . . that's not fair," Cole says.
BUT NO CHILD Left Behind has uncovered a dirty little secret: far too many schools were not testing special edcuation students at all.
"What we found was that in some states very few kids [were tested]" said Rachel Quenemoen, spokeswoman for the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which helps build educational assessment and accountability systems. "How do we hold systems accountable if they can pick and choose who is being assessed?"
The federal law, however, does recognize that not every child can take the same test. It allows children with disabilities to take the test with accommodations, which might include giving a child more time to take the test, offering the test in large print or reading the math portion of the test. Generally, students are given the same testing accommodations that they receive in the classroom.
Students with severe disabilities, typically significant mental retardation, are permitted to take a completely different test. In Rhode Island, only 330 students took the alternate assessment, according to Tom DiPaola, director of special needs for the state Department of Education.
"We're very strict," he said. "We include as many kids as possible in the regular assessment."
The alternate assessment is not a test in the standard sense. Typically, it is an evaluation of the student's work, which is collected in a portfolio.
Concerned that some schools might subvert No Child Left Behind by allowing too many students to take the alternate assessment, federal officials limited to 1 percent the number of students who are permitted to take this test.
But what about those students who are two to three grade levels behind their peers but don't qualify for an alternate assessment?
Rhode Island, working together with New Hampshire and Vermont, is developing a new test to measure whether these "gap students" are making progress.
Other states, including Connecticut, have grappled with this issue by offering tests designed for a grade lower than the one in which the student is enrolled. But out-of-grade testing is controversial. Some educators question if it is another variation on the low-expectations game.
Jerilyn Devon of Bristol has been fighting for the rights of special education students for years. Her 12-year-old son has learning disabilities and is allowed to take the state assessment in a quiet room, free of the typical classroom distractions.
Her son, she said, surprises teachers with his ability to grasp challenging material, but he doesn't learn in a traditional, paper-and-pen way.
"I think testing is a good idea," said Devon, who sits on the district's Special Education Advisory Council. "But I don't know if the tests, even with accommodations, measure what my child can do."
NO CHILD LEFT Behind a wake-up call for North Kingstown.
The high school found itself classified as in need of improvement because its special education students did not make the grade. The school discovered huge gaps between the performance of its special education students and its general population.
"It was a hard lesson," said assistant principal Patty DiCenso. "We weren't serving all kids. Here we were -- a brand-new school, 90-percent white -- and we still weren't doing that."
Rather than blaming the special education teachers, DiCenso apologized to them. She told them, "Make a wish list of all the things you need."
Here's what she heard: Include us in the planning process. Let our kids take the same practice tests. Give us calculators that compute fractions. Treat us like we're part of the team.
One teacher who works with severely impaired students told her that he was worried that the test was too demanding for his class.
Meanwhile, the high school got down to business. The math department concluded that general math, commonly called shop or business math, wasn't rigorous enough to help students with learning disabilities succeed in college or the job market. The department replaced general math with a college-prep curriculum.
"The success rate has been phenomenal," DiCenso said. "Seventy-five percent of these students now have the ability to move on to higher-level math."
But Mark Williams, a teacher who works with students with significant disabilities, still questions whether it's just to place so much value on one test.
"It's reasonable to raise the bar for all students," he said. "But to insist that all students will reach that bar is very dangerous. That may drive some kids out of school."
Williams recognizes that No Child Left Behind is the law. He encourages his students to take the state tests seriously. He urges them to work out math problems, even if they can't complete them, and he gives them tokens, which can be redeemed for healthy snacks.
"I insist on having the same kids for four years," he said. "I want to build a relationship with these kids so when it comes down to that moment when they want to give up, they'll stick with it because they trust me."
The faculty's hard work is paying off. North Kingstown High School hit all its performance targets last year, including the one for special education. The school is now listed as high-performing and improving.
For change to be effective, DiCenso says, it has to come from within. In this case, it was the teachers, working together, who figured out how to raise the bar for an overlooked segment of the population.
DiCenso said, "The special education teachers are the true heroes of this story."
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