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Special Ed Test Rule to Change

New flexibility in testing special education students may help some schools meet state and federal academic goals, but many others are likely to continue struggling.

The U.S. Department of Education plans an announcement today. The Associated Press has reported that the department will allow -- in states that prove they are serious about raising academic achievement -- more special education students to take alternative tests.

In Michigan, that would mean that instead of being forced to take the MEAP, the students could take a test that's geared toward their abilities.

Currently, schools can only have 1 percent of their severely disabled students taking the alternative tests. The new rule will allow 3 percent of students with disabilities to take the tests.

Many of the Michigan schools that have failed to meet academic goals have been affected by the low scores of their special education students, or because too many took the alternative test.

The No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's education plan in his first term, has brought greater accountability to schools.

Each year, states must identify schools that don't make enough academic progress. Those that chronically fail to meet the goals face sanctions that range from offering parents the choice to leave for better schools to replacing school staff.

How the new rule would affect schools in Michigan depends on how the U.S. agency determines whether a state is serious about raising academic achievement.

"I don't know any state that isn't trying to act on behalf of students," said Patricia Drake, special education data consultant for the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency.

Drake is optimistic that "we would have the most latitude possible to do what's appropriate for our students with special needs."

The 1-percent rule was considered unreasonable, said Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education.

Some say the change won't make much difference for schools that serve only special education students.

"You're dealing with a school population where all of the children have severe handicaps," said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. But while it will help traditional schools, it still creates a dilemma, he added.

"... You want to make fair judgments about how schools are doing. ... But, you don't want to go back to a situation where schools will simply tuck kids in special education as a way of not addressing their educational needs."

The rule change assures the latter won't happen, he said.

But Plank said the Departments of Education will have to consider issuing waivers for schools that only serve special education students. The waivers would shield the schools from sanctions.

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or higgins@freepress.com.

— Lori Higgins
Detroit Free Press


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