Schools Squeezed Between Two Sets of Federal Rules
Thirty Maryland elementary schools -- most from the Washington area -- failed to meet standards required by the No Child Left Behind law because they assisted thousands of children who have disabilities or limited English skills on a key standardized test, state and local officials said yesterday.
The officials said they and educators in other states are being squeezed between two sets of federal rules: one that invalidates the scores of children who had the test read to them and another that requires schools to provide such help.
The 30 Maryland schools, like thousands of others across the country, are at risk of having to pay tutors, change their faculties and even face possible state takeover because of their low test scores under No Child Left Behind, the foundation of the Bush administration's education policy.
Terms of the new federal law's testing requirements clash with decades-old legislation that requires some children to receive special assistance in the classroom and on examinations.
Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said they are concerned that if the federal government does not resolve the conflict soon, students still learning English or in special education classes will be blamed for the undesirable "needs improvement" label attached to schools that fail to meet state-imposed standards.
Grasmick said, "We do not want any backlash" aimed at "some of our most vulnerable students."
If schools decided to try to improve their test scores by not offering assistance to those students, Grasmick and Weast said, it would be like requiring wheelchair users to run a 100-year dash -- with frustration for the students and confusion for their parents.
The problem occurred on one section of the new Maryland School Assessment in reading taken by third-graders in March. It is standard procedure in Maryland for adults to read test questions to students with limited English skills and to special education students whose individual education plans require such accommodations.
But the private company that developed and scored the Maryland exams, following rules set by national associations for testing professionals, threw out the results when students received such help on questions that asked them to recognize individual words and explain their meaning. Under current guidelines, when any section of the test is invalidated, the student fails the entire test and receives the lowest possible score.
"This is very hurtful for them," Weast said. "Most of them want to do well and are used to the accommodation."
Across Maryland, the reading scores of 3,394 third-graders were reduced to the lowest grade possible, according to state officials. Thirty schools of the 511 listed as not meeting new state standards actually would have met the standards had the students' scores not been lowered, according to Grasmick.
Three of those schools are in Anne Arundel County, and two are in Howard County. But the issue is particularly crucial for Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which together accounted for 16 of the 30 Maryland elementary schools in that situation.
Weast said that in Montgomery, the scores were invalidated for 461 special education students and 371 students still learning English. In Prince George's, 523 special education students and 427 students with limited English skills received similar results, said Edward Roke, the state's acting director of testing, research and evaluation.
Because of similar concerns about testing requirements, Virginia officials filed their plan to comply with No Child Left Behind under "strong protest."
Ronald J. Tomalis, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Education Department, said his office is working with Grasmick to address her concerns. He said that although the law requires students with little English to be tested, even if they have just arrived in the United States, those scores do not have to count against a school until the students have been in the school for a year.
Tomalis said he believes further study would uncover ways that Maryland and other states could accommodate students with disabilities without violating the professional standards for test validity.
Weast said he decided to delay sending each student's test results home because a letter from the grading company stated only, "We were unable to give a score to your child," and advised parents to call their schools for further information.
Grasmick said she is working on an informational mailing to those children's parents. The parents should receive their children's results within several weeks, and next year they will receive more complete results, a state spokesman said.
Ricki Sabia, co-chairman of an advocacy group for Montgomery County special education students and director of public policy for the National Down Syndrome Society, said that parents should still receive an accurate reflection of how their children performed on the test -- even if the official record only shows a failing grade.
"How do we get these tests to be more meaningful for kids?" Sabia said. "For starters, give them an actual score."
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