Disabled focus of grading dispute
School personnel have pointed to this problem since the beginning of NCLB. We don't seem to be any closer to a solution.
By Cecilia Le
Ten first-graders squealed with excitement as a speech pathologist led them in an Easter egg game.
One girl bounced in her seat like a rubber ball. Another little boy wore hearing aids. A third child got help from a classroom teacher kneeling beside him.
They are students at Richardson Park Learning Center, which serves the special needs of 232 children with challenges such as learning disabilities, social and emotional maladjustment, limited mobility, and speech, hearing and vision problems.
Few can pass state tests in reading and math, but soon their learning center could face the same accountability standards -- and the same federal sanctions for failing to meet those standards -- as all other schools. Richardson Park and Red Clay district officials know the learning center is unlikely to "make the grade," but they hope the school's plight will bring attention to what they consider a flaw in the state testing program.
Most special-education students succeed academically in regular classrooms at typical schools. The children at Richardson Park are there because their parents and a team of educators decided they need the intensive services the center provides: group speech therapy, physical therapy and other assistance throughout the day.
According to federal law, Richardson Park students must take the same state tests as every other student. Last year, 18 percent of Richardson Park students passed the reading test; 12 percent passed the math test. By comparison, among the state's third-graders alone last year, 84 percent passed the reading test and 79 percent passed the math test.
Currently, their scores are counted with the scores from the neighborhood schools the students would attend if they were not at the learning center.
In late March, however, the Department of Education decided to give school districts the option of classifying learning centers as individual schools that would be held to the same accountability standards as every other school. The change, which is pending federal approval, could affect Richardson Park and several other intensive learning centers statewide.
"Our scores are going to look absolutely awful," Richardson Park Principal Edward Norris said. "By state standards, we'll be under review."
Norris and officials from the Red Clay school district, which oversees Richardson Park, don't think that's a problem. Red Clay called for such a change in a lawsuit against the Department of Education last year, and put that suit on hold when the state announced the change. Warner Elementary School, a typical school in Red Clay, faces sanctions partly because of the failing scores from more than 30 Richardson Park students who never attended Warner.
Red Clay officials hope Richardson Park's low scores, when forced to stand alone, will call attention to what they see as a larger problem: The Delaware Student Testing Program is not appropriate for some students with disabilities, who should be allowed to take an alternate test.
"We are more than willing to stand accountable for what we do for kids," Norris said. "The DSTP is not the appropriate measuring stick."
He points to other tests that assess students on their ability level rather than their grade level. Such tests measure the progress they made, rather than simply showing a failing score.
Students with the most severe disabilities -- less than 1 percent of the population -- already take a different test.
Federal No Child Left Behind rules currently say everyone else must be tested on grade level, with the goal of having every child proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Many students with disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or dyslexia excel in advanced coursework if given the right help. It's children with more profound disabilities that give policymakers a headache: Some argue it's unrealistic to expect such students -- many reading years below grade level -- to achieve at the same rate as everyone else.
Others, including many special-education advocates, fear that relaxing expectations will allow schools to make excuses for students or not give them the services they need.
State and federal education officials have said they support an alternate test for students with a wider range of disabilities, but such a test hasn't yet been approved.
Meanwhile, regular tests will be given to children such as 7-year-old Richardson Park student Yvonne Briddell, who didn't speak until she was 5. To find out what food she wanted, her mother had to take everything down from the kitchen cabinets.
Her first-grade report cards at Richardson Park say she has made "wonderful" progress in reading, though she needs much more work in comprehension and staying on task.
"Yvonne needs a lot of prompting," said her mother, Doris Robinson. "She's going to get a very low score. With her attention span, if she gets frustrated, nothing is getting done. It would not be feasible to include her in testing the other kids."
In the first-grade room, the speech pathologist emphasized "over," "under" and "on top of" -- concepts with which children who have difficulty learning to speak often struggle.
In another small room, a student worked with a therapist on holding a pencil. A gym nearby is equipped with mats and swings for occupational therapy.
A fifth-grade teacher led her class in what appeared a typical math lesson on fractions. Students found the lowest common denominator and decided which fractions were larger.
"We try to mirror what goes on in the elementary schools, but we do it at their level," Norris said. "Our kids function normally, but they have one hard time with reading, writing and arithmetic."
Contact Cecilia Le at 324-2794 or email@example.com.
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