Special ed scores don't paint the real picture
THE ANNUAL overload of public school performance information has been released by the Alabama Department of Education, just in time to confuse parents at the start of the school year.
While digesting the full meal of test scores, adequate yearly performance standards and lists of schools where students can transfer to and fro will take some time, one trend stands out: Many public schools have been declared failures not because their students aren't learning, but because some of their special education students can't pass standardized tests.
That's not fair to the special ed kids, the rest of the students, the teachers or the parents. And it doesn't make sense to give all the students in one school the option of transferring, based solely on the performance of special education students, as happens with so-called Title I schools, where many of the students come from low-income families.
But under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 40 schools in Mobile and Baldwin counties were deemed to have "failed" to make adequate yearly progress because of test scores among special education students.
A public school's "adequate yearly progress," known as AYP, is based on a set of goals set by the state based largely on how well students do on standardized tests measuring what they are expected to have learned at each grade level tested. But because No Child Left Behind allows no room for failure, a single school is declared not to have made adequate yearly progress if it fails to meet the standard in even one category.
So, if special education students don't pass, the whole school doesn't pass.
Of 33 schools in Mobile County that did not meet adequate yearly progress standards in the last school year, 27 were so labeled solely because of the reading and/or math test scores of special education students. In Baldwin County, the same thing happened to 13 of the 20 schools that didn't make adequate yearly progress.
But by definition, special education students are children with disabilities or learning problems who need extra attention and resources to become educated. Some may have relatively minor problems and just need a little extra help. Others are profoundly mentally and/or physically disabled, and some of them may never be able to pass the same test given to all the other students.
Mobile County educators have told the Register editorial board of special education children who break into tears when presented with a test that they don't understand and don't know what to do with. These kids may be doing the best they can at learning whatever material they are capable of absorbing, but they aren't measured on what they can achieve, only on whether they can perform at grade level.
This isn't just Alabama's problem. On Friday, while the Register was reporting on schools that didn't make adequate yearly progress here, the San Antonio Express-News was reporting that in one of that Texas city's school districts, nine of 10 schools that didn't make adequate yearly progress missed because of the performance of their special education students.
In Provo, Utah, last year, one elementary school failed to meet adequate yearly progress solely because three disabled students scored poorly on tests, Time magazine reported. Several states and individual school districts are challenging the requirements of No Child Left Behind in part because the special education performance standards.
By no means should public schools be excused from providing the best possible educations for children with disabilities of any kind. All public schools should be held to a high standard of performance in special education as well as in every subject at every grade level. But common sense must be applied, and special education students are classified that way for a reason.
No Child Left Behind allows states to use what Alabama calls "alternative achievement standards" to evaluate students with what it considers the "most significant cognitive disabilities." Roughly, those are students whose IQ's are 55 and below, and who may be unable to achieve at grade level even with the best of instruction.
The catch is, if the number of special education students showing proficiency on the alternate tests exceeds 1 percent of the total number of students who passed, some of those special ed scores are arbitrarily deemed to be failing. In other words, even if the kids have done the best that they possibly can on tests they have a chance of passing, some of their scores don't count.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has recently modified the national policy to allow schools to exempt 3 percent of their special ed students from the standardized tests. That's an improvement, but in the Mobile County school system, 13 percent of students are considered special ed.
The special ed provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act need to be modified so that schools aren't set up to fail just because they have a significant number of special ed students enrolled.
In the meantime, parents who have been notified that they can transfer their children from low-performing schools need to take a hard look at why the schools have been rated that way, before deciding whether their children really can get a better education somewhere else.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES