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Deal on Special-Ed Testing Grows Near

Federal education officials, fresh from slapping a nearly half-million-dollar fine on Texas for ignoring a deadline to report school ranking information, say they are close to a compromise with the Lone Star State on another contentious school issue: How to measure the progress of special education students.

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley traveled to Washington last week to try to resolve the impasse over special-ed testing. Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings released a letter late Friday informing Neeley that she'll withhold $444,282 in federal funding this year because the state did not tell parents if their children's schools performed up to standard under the No Child Left Behind law before the school year began.

The Houston Chronicle and the Associated Press erroneously reported this weekend that the fine was levied because the state exempted too many students from regular state testing, allowing them to take an alternative assessment instead.

"The fine had nothing to do with the testing of special education children or their inclusion in the federal evaluation system," said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.

Neeley said the fine, which represents at tiny piece of the state's $1.1 billion federal allocation, will not affect Texas classrooms.

"TEA will make the sacrifice and absorb this fine," Neeley said. "Classrooms and teachers will not be harmed by this fine."

The battle over special-ed testing is ongoing. It centers on how schools treat special education students when it comes to mandatory standardized testing as required by No Child Left Behind, President Bush's reform law.

The federal law says only 1 percent of students in a school are exempt from mandatory standardized testing because they're in special education. All other students must be tested on grade level or be counted as failures.

The newly appointed Spellings announced earlier this month that she would allow some flexibility: Now an additional 2 percent of students may take an alternate test.

In Texas, where 12 percent of students are in special education, about 9 percent took an alternative test last year. State and local educators say the alternative test is a better measure of year-to-year growth of students with learning disabilities or special needs.

Neeley has said Texas schools will continue to follow state law and test special-ed children using alternative assessments as teachers, principals and parents deem necessary.

Kerri Briggs, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education, said officials are reviewing the situation and that Texas could still face a penalty for refusing to follow federal law.

"We've been having good, positive conversations with Texas, trying to focus on what's good for kids," Briggs said. "We're still deliberating on how (Texas') entire accountability assessment reaches the requirements of No Child Left Behind."

Briggs acknowledged that some students may not have the ability to reach the standard set by the federal government at their grade level, but 9 percent is too high.

"Most kids with disability can reach grade level," she said.


— Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
San Antonio Express-News


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