Testing not on the level
Ohanian Comment: It is not at all easy for an outsider to see whether teachers are 'gaming the system' or trying to give children with special needs the appropriate test at their functional level. The reporter seems to find it suspicious that a 4th grader might take a 3rd grade (or lower) test. I could tell her that many of my 7th graders would have found a 4th grade test too tough.
by Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
Higher standards yield higher achievement and rewards.
That is the logic behind President Bush's No Child Left Behind public school overhaul, but it isn't playing out with special-education students in Texas.
Educators across the state are taking firm advantage of a state-sanctioned system that allows them to test special-ed students — those with autism, attention-deficit disorder or other learning disabilities — at the lowest possible level.
Doing so can help districts avoid high numbers of failing students and the sanctions under the federal law that come with them — an irony, given the purpose of the law.
In his 2000 campaign, President Bush promised that his No Child Left Behind initiative — a no-excuses, Texas-style accountability plan — would raise standards, demand progress, and eliminate the "soft bigotry of low expectations."
Schools would be forced to prove they were educating all children at their fullest possible potential. To do so, they would break out test results by subgroups so there was no way to obscure how minority, poor and special-ed students were faring. If all boats weren't lifted, an entire school would sink.
That's not how it's working, said North East Superintendent Richard Middleton. He argues that districts like his that challenge special-ed students risk being punished.
"They're hurting schools that are stretching to do the right thing for these children," he said. "It sounds good to say, 'We're going to hold you accountable for every child,' but that's not the reality of what's happening."
Others fear that fragile students are being caught in a system that uses testing to punish educators rather than to assess progress and determine what students need to learn. Testing special-ed students at levels that may be too difficult for them sets them up for failure, these educators argue.
"That's what's so frustrating about education reform," said Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a Baltimore-based education consultant and policy analyst who has studied the impact of NCLB on special education. "We need something in between no accountability, pre-NCLB, and the absurd goal that 99 percent of children with disabilities are going to meet standards."
Gaming the system
An Express-News computer analysis of test scores statewide shows how prevalent the practice of testing special-ed students at the lowest possible level is across Texas. The analysis demonstrates how districts can "game the system" by assigning special-ed kids a range of achievement levels — from Level 1 to Level 3 — and testing them accordingly.
Here's how it works: Special-ed students do not have to take the state's standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Instead, they can take an alternative test called the SDAA II.
For a school's results to count under No Child Left Behind, special-ed students must take the SDAA II on their grade level. Districts that don't want their results to count under the accountability law can administer the test at a lower grade level. In other words, a fourth-grader could take the test at a third-grade level or even lower.
Schools can decide which of the three achievement levels a student will be tested on. A student can get every question wrong at Level One and pass. Passing at Level Two requires a student to show a good grasp of the curriculum. Passing at Level Three requires them to demonstrate mastery of the material.
About 9 percent of Texas' 4.4 million public school students — or 396,000 — are labeled special-ed.
Statewide, more than 41 percent of special-ed students who took the alternative reading test last school year did so at Level 1.
Plano, outside Dallas, tested nearly 70 percent of special-ed students at Level 1; Arlington, nearly 60 percent; and the affluent Dallas enclave of Highland Park, over 90 percent. More than 100 districts tested 100 percent of special-ed students at that level.
Among Bexar County districts, more than 42 percent of special-ed students taking the alternative reading test took it at Level 1. San Antonio and Judson school districts tested more than half of their special-ed kids at that level.
On the other end of the spectrum, North East school district tested less than 12 percent on the lowest level, and the smaller Edgewood and Southside school districts about 6 percent.
North East, usually a district that posts high marks, had 10 schools fail a federal standard that requires to schools to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) or risk sanctions as serious as a state takeover.
Four schools were ranked academically unacceptable under the state's accountability system. Those rankings were overturned on appeal, a result of the district's argument that it was unfairly penalized for challenging special-ed students with more difficult tests.
In Edgewood, which had one school ranked academically unacceptable and four fail to make adequate yearly progress, educators say they, too, suffered for challenging special-ed kids. But they stand by their approach.
"We want to ensure there's progress every year," said Linda Bononcini, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "We need to do what's right for our students, whether it affects AYP or not."
Standards are getting tougher
Educators opting for tougher testing standards say they're pushing kids to reach their ultimate potential and preparing for escalating requirements under No Child Left Behind.
By the 2013-2014 school year, the law stipulates that 100 percent of a school's students must demonstrate proficiency in reading and math for a school to pass federal standards. Only 1 percent of special-ed students will be permitted to be exempt.
"If we're going to reach that proficiency level, we have to start ramping up now," Middleton said.
Educators opting for less stringent testing standards say they make decisions based on an individual child's need.
"If the kids are receiving special education, they're receiving it because they need it," said Linda Mora, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Northside School District, where more than 35 percent of students were tested at the lowest achievement level in reading.
"For us to arbitrarily say we're going to test them at a certain level, regardless of their ability, is not good, sound educational practice."
Gene Lenz, the Texas Education Agency's deputy associate commissioner for special programs, monitoring and interventions, said the SDAA II was not designed for the sweeping federal accountability system, but as a tool to help target instruction and determine progress.
He described the achievement levels as an important part of the test to make sure kids of all ability ranges are covered. The potential for "gaming the system" exists, he said, but he believes the vast majority of educators are making the best decisions for individual children.
"I have to believe in my heart of hearts that everybody plays by the rules," Lenz said. "But (in) a system this big and a state this large, is it possible certain things have occurred? It's possible."
Though the Texas Education Agency granted North East's appeals of the four schools tagged with the lowest ranking, the district still failed to make adequate yearly progress. That designation will stick, administrators learned last week after meeting in Washington with U.S. Department of Education officials.
If the district doesn't do better this year, it will face sanctions, such as picking up the cost for extra tutoring or being required to offer students the chance to transfer within the district.
Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocacy and policy group that supports the goals of No Child Left Behind, plans to help work out a compromise for North East.
"We're interested in working with the district to see whether there's a short-term fix for this accountability system that will allow them to continue doing what's right for special-ed kids without being penalized for it," Haycock said. "I'm just pretty horrified by the numbers."
Teaching changes under way
North East is in the midst of a huge shift in how it educates children with special needs.
The vast majority of special-ed students are now in regular classes, getting instruction on their grade level. Certified special-ed teachers are taking on the role of consultant to regular education teachers rather than heads of their own classrooms.
Five years ago at North East's Walzem Elementary, nearly every special-ed child was pulled out of a regular classroom for reading and math instruction below their grade level. Now the school — where 30 percent of kids are labeled special ed — is a model for the new way the district is educating students with learning disabilities.
"Kids don't want to be different," said Principal Susan Dameron, who led the switch at Walzem. "That right there affects their performance."
Dameron decided last year that every child who was one to two years behind grade level in reading or math would take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills on their grade level.
"We had some pretty stunning results," she said.
Not stunning enough. The school failed to make adequate yearly progress, but Dameron said it was a risk well worth taking since the special-ed students performed far better than expected — proof they could meet the challenge.
"I am not one bit sorry we did it," Dameron said. "I think it was a great decision. It gave us some very valuable benchmark information."
Many of the students who didn't pass still did better than teachers had been giving them credit for, Dameron said. Now, armed with specific information, teachers can target tutoring to a student's weak area.
"Lots of times, these kids will surprise you," she said. "But you have to give them the chance."
Still, others worry educators are caught in a system that values accountability over what's best for individual children.
"The guidance we give our schools is to look at the kids," Northside's Mora said. "Why in the world would you want to frustrate a child with a test he can't do? I wouldn't want my own child to be faced with a test he had no chance of passing."
Database Editor Kelly Guckian contributed to this report.
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INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES