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State test draws complaints: Exam unfair to special-needs students, Red Clay chief says

Ohanian Comment: The Superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated school district is a former special ed teacher and he is fighting the state on the behalf of these students. He believes the Feds allow for alternative assessments, which the state is not allowing.

Quite a few people have commented on this article online, but there is so much misinformation I decided not to post the comments.

One comment got it very right:
Parents can simply refuse permission to have their child tested. Imagine the improvement in education and in your child's interest in school if parents refused to buy into the testing scam.

By Alison Kepner

Fourth-grade teacher Theresa Celano held out her hand, displaying her imaginary bug.

"Think of one more thing you are going to give this insect to keep him alive ... write your answer down," she told the six special-needs students clutching pencils as they stared at the state science tests on their desks Monday morning.

Some of these 9- and 10-year-olds at Richardson Park Intensive Learning Center in Christiana Hundred still are learning letter sounds and don't know yet how to put sounds together to form words, principal Edward Norris said.

Although they are given special accommodations, such as Celano reading the questions, they take the same Delaware Student Testing Program exam.

Most will fail the tests, possibly causing their school to be sanctioned for not making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Red Clay Consolidated Superintendent Robert J. Andrzejewski expects it.

In fact, he wants the school to fail to prove a point: Special-needs students require an alternate assessment.

He sued the state last year to force it to count Richardson Park as an individual school for accountability ratings. Previously, the state tied its students' scores to the neighborhood schools they no longer attend.

"These students, by definition, will not meet the standards," Andrzejewski said of the testing program. "If they were capable of scoring a 3, they would no longer be classified as special education."

If Richardson Park fails, as its superintendent anticipates, he may sue the state again, basing his claim on the district's growth-model testing. That testing shows students are making progress the state exam doesn't recognize.

"I am prepared on behalf of those children and those families to challenge the system," said Andrzejewski, a former special-education teacher.

Understanding the questions

Almost 19,000 students have disabilities, ranging from autism and blindness to speech impairment and traumatic brain injury, according to the state. Most learn at regular schools. Students go to a learning center after a team including the children's teachers and parents decides they need services -- such as hearing therapy -- or would not succeed elsewhere.

Some learning center students have IQs below 70 as well as emotional and physical disabilities. The state test presents them with questions they can't understand, Andrzejewski said.

Of Richardson Park's 200 students, four succeeded on last year's exams, Norris said.

Statewide last year, about 41 percent of special-education third-graders and 79 percent of 10th-graders didn't meet the reading standard. In math, 52 percent of third-graders and 84 percent of sophomores fell below, and in writing, 72 percent in both grades failed.

"If you are talking to someone in a different language, imagine the frustration when you have to perform and don't know what they are talking about," Andrzejewski said, adding that the constant failure demoralizes many. "It's more than frustration. These students, they cry. Sometimes they act out. They want to do [well]."

Andrzejewski, who believes federal law allows for alternate assessment, blames state leaders for not allowing it in Delaware. State officials, in turn, say they can't do much without approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

"Federal law has been very clear about what states can and can't do," said Robin Taylor, associate secretary of assessment and accountability with the state Department of Education. "They say they are giving us flexibility. States are sitting, waiting, poised, ready to go off and do something, but we don't know what to do yet."

Initially, No Child Left Behind offered three options: regular assessment, assessment with accommodations and assessment in an alternate format. In December 2003, a fourth option allowing for modified achievement standards was added, but it was exclusively for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings offered a fifth option to 31 states, including Delaware, on an interim basis to allow modified achievement standards for "gap kids" -- those who typically can perform at grade-level but at a slower pace. She set a 2 percent cap on the number of scores from modified testing that could be counted toward schools' yearly progress.

Federal officials still are working on regulations for the modified standard. Like some other states, Delaware is waiting to implement a new test until they release the findings.

"It's not that we're not interested in helping these students and finding an appropriate measure for these students," Taylor said.

Red Clay's attorney, Jim Sullivan, said some Richardson Park parents feel the state is violating the No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement acts, which mandate yearly tests showing student progress and an individual education plan.

"They feel as though [the Delaware testing program] is not any real assessment of their children's progress," Sullivan said.

Evaluating the scores

Before this year, test scores of special-needs students attending learning centers were included with the neighborhood schools they normally would attend. The state Board of Education agreed in June to give districts the option of instead classifying those students with their learning centers, which then would be held responsible for their progress.

Red Clay had sued the state, asking for a change, after Warner Elementary was sanctioned partly because of the low scores of some special-needs students attending Richardson Park. The students never attended Warner but were in its enrollment area. The district dropped its suit after state leaders made the change.

Colonial, Milford and Smyrna joined Red Clay in making the switch this year.

Smyrna Assistant Superintendent Buddy Lloyd acknowledged his district's new intensive learning center may help the middle and high schools, whose scores were pulled down by low-performing special-needs students.

"If those scores were included in the regular school setting, it just may be enough to put you over the edge and affect that school's accountability," he said.

District leaders said this change doesn't mean they will focus less on helping special-needs students. Rather, it brings more pressure to help them succeed.

Smyrna is in its second year of a program aimed to better address the needs of special-education students throughout the district: Project HEART, an acronym for Highest Expectations At Risk Teaming.

Extracurricular specialists are working with special-education teachers to assist with lesson delivery, method and materials. They want more hands-on learning than students may receive in a traditional classroom to help them better visualize the lessons.

"We are always trying to make sure that we are giving the students the material that they need to be exposed to so they are able to score the best that they can on the DSTP," Lloyd said. "We are trying to give them the same programs that are in the traditional settings, but we are trying to give them a little more individual attention."

Like Andrzejewski, leaders in the other districts agree an alternate test is needed but said that isn't why they opted for the change.

For Colonial Superintendent George Meney, it was about holding accountable the school and teachers who work with the children each day rather than putting the responsibility on a school the students are connected to only on paper.

"It's a fairness issue," he said.

Meney supports an alternate exam, just as he sees the need for different testing for English learner students.

"The measure needs to be based on individual growth ... where we start with the youngster and where we end with the youngster," he said.

Earlier this year, opponents argued against the change, saying it could hurt inclusion efforts, encouraging districts to place special-needs students in separate schools unnecessarily to improve neighborhood schools' ratings.

The state Department of Education collects data on placement every Dec. 1. Officials will look for unexpected increases in intensive learning center assignment, spokesman Ron Gough said. If they see that, they will review policies with districts to ensure children are not inappropriately placed in more restrictive environments.

District leaders also pledge it won't happen. No child is placed in an intensive learning center without parental consent, Andrzejewski noted. His district is examining how it serves all special-needs children, and he expects to return more to neighborhood schools.

"The biggest fear in talking with the folks who lobby for inclusion is that the students in a segregated setting don't have the opportunity to interact with age-appropriate peers," Andrzejewski said. "That opportunity is there for parents if they choose it. Parents who choose the learning center, it also is their right to have their student in that environment.

"The state rating system should not penalize that," he said.

— Alison Kepner
The News Journal


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