Testing Rules Contradict Each Other
by Nanette Asimov
Talk about a Catch-22.
The U.S. Education Department has just issued a new rule saying disabled students who must use a calculator or other device when taking a test will be marked absent and their exam won't count under the nation's sweeping school reform law dubbed No Child Left Behind.
At the same time, schools are required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to let students use such tools if they have a disability that impairs their ability to read or do math.
"This is crazy," said Bill Padia, testing director at the California Department of Education, which is required to enforce the new federal rules. "We just shook our heads incredulously."
Federal officials counter that there is logic behind the new rule barring modifications during tests.
Darla Marburger, deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education, said a test that's supposed to measure math skills can't measure those skills if a student uses a calculator. Similarly, a test can't measure reading skills if a student is listening to the test being read from an audio player.
"It's perfectly acceptable to change the environment of the test, or the seating, to accommodate certain needs," Marburger said. "But it's not OK to use modifications that fundamentally change how the student is being assessed."
She said the decision to prohibit modifications was made earlier this year during a wide-ranging discussion within the Department of Education about testing students with disabilities.
In California, nearly 700,000 students have some kind of disability and are given an "individualized education program." Many of those programs specify that a modification such as a calculator or audiobook is needed for that student's schoolwork and tests.
The new rules barring those modifications are the latest federal tweak to the controversial No Child Left Behind Education Act, which establishes strict regulations for state exams and sets consequences for failing to satisfy the rules. Ultimately, every student is expected to score at grade level by 2014.
Yet disabled students marked absent for using modifications cannot score at grade level.
So what's a teacher to do?
"This has put the teachers squarely into a dilemma," said Sharon Bleviss, special education department chairwoman at Capuchino High School in San Bruno. "Either they can support the students ... or deny the students their rights."
If they let kids use the modifications allowed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, teachers say they may place their school at risk under No Child Left Behind.
That's because the federal education law can punish certain schools that fail to satisfy any one of several requirements -- including a rule that 95 percent of students with disabilities within each school take the state's tests.
Schools that fall short of that or other requirements are labeled underperforming and risk being shut if they underperform year after year.
In California, the state Education Department recently sent out a notice attempting to clarify the modification issue for high schools, which will soon be administering the Exit Exam, one of two tests used by the state for No Child Left Behind. (The other is the California Standards Test.)
The state's notice explained that students who take the test with modifications "will not count toward the 95 percent participation rate requirement" of No Child Left Behind.
But in bold-faced type, the same notice also said schools are required to "provide students with any accommodations or modifications specified in their individualized education program" during Exit Exam testing.
Advocates for the disabled say they have already seen evidence that some school officials are trying to discourage students from using the modifications they are entitled to -- or even prevent them from having the modifications written into their individualized education plan to begin with.
"We've talked with students whose school districts have (advised them) not to include modifications in their programs because the test scores won't count," said attorney Stephen Tollafield of Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland. "But students have a legal right to use whatever modifications they need."
Bleviss, of Capuchino High, said that her San Mateo Union High School District has told teachers "that when possible, we should administer the test without the modifications for 10th-graders."
Students can try to pass the Exit Exam several times, however, and the district has said that students could resume the use of modifications if they need to take the test more than once, Bleviss said.
But, she added, this system may be appropriate for some students and not for others, who need the tools every time they take a test.
The U.S. Department of Education expects to reach a compromise on the issue, Marburger said. It would allow states to use simpler tests "that accurately measure students' achievement and won't require a modification," she said. "We hope to be able to get a proposal out this winter. Maybe sooner."
San Francisco Chronicle
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