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Special ed students fall through net in ISTEP

by Ruth Holladay

Things calmed in Chris McShane's fourth- and fifth-grade class, but just minutes before, chaos had erupted.

A girl had thrown her shoes, torn up her papers and stormed out the door, agitating the other nine pupils. A boy would not stop talking. Another boy had given up and was sitting near the door.

And a star student, whose notebook shows impeccable handwriting, was absent again. He was homeless last year and attended only 40 out of 180 days of school. This year, he was off to a good start. Then a relative swooped into town and took him away again.

No wonder the debate about whether to conduct ISTEP-Plus testing in the spring or the fall is not exactly the hot topic here that it is in some political circles.

"Not a child passed that test," says McShane, 50, a special education teacher with Indianapolis Public Schools for 15 years. She is talking about her students at Lutherwood, a private residential facility with 80 pupils whose problems range from emotional to mental disabilities.

The standardized exam was given last month to elementary, middle and high school students in Indiana. Although McShane's pupils may be among the most challenged, they are neither unique nor a minority.

For 2004-05, more than 1 million students were enrolled in Indiana public schools. Nearly 19 percent of them are in special ed. Those include students mainstreamed in public schools as well as in programs such as Lutherwood's. Their disabilities are as individual as they are -- mild mental handicaps, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and other cognitive and physical disabilities.
Federal guidelines from the No Child Left Behind Act allow 3 percent of students to be exempt from standardized testing. That is simply not enough. "There are more children in the state of Indiana who should be exempt than the 3 percent allowed by the federal government," McShane says.

Like many others in the field of special ed, she favors testing. She thinks schools need more of it, not less. But for special ed students, she says, testing should focus on progress made from one year to the next.

The biggest obstacle for special ed students in ISTEP-Plus is reading comprehension. Many are not good readers.

Furthermore, their IEPs -- individual education plans -- may permit teachers to read material aloud to them. That's not OK during Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus.
McShane says that results in students who become so frustrated that they simply color in the test blanks or get so angry they tear up the test. Most fail it -- 79 percent of special ed students did not pass the 10th-grade ISTEP-Plus last year.

For whatever reasons, politicians ignore this. Gov. Mitch Daniels, unhappy that the legislature had not moved ISTEP-Plus from fall to spring, recently appointed six new board of education members who lean toward spring testing.

Many educators say there are pluses and minuses to the spring and the fall. Neither one is perfect.

They wonder why the time element is such a big deal -- and why special education students are not.

— Ruth Holladay
Indianapolis Star


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