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NCLB Outrages

Disagreement on Whether Special Ed Kids Should Be Held to Same NCLB Standards

Rosemary Decker and Cathie White, teachers in the West Chester Area School District, say the federal law known as No Child Left Behind has a huge flaw that harms children already struggling with disabilities and casts good schools in a bad light.

"I don't have a problem with accountability, but how can you say each and every child should be able to pass the state tests when some children are so far behind in their ability to read? It's cruel," White said.

"What a slap in the face," said Decker.

But Barbara D'Silva, a parent in the North Penn School District who has a child with special needs, says the law is living up to its name - and putting pressure on schools to do more to aid children with disabilities. Schools, D'Silva said, "should modify instruction so these kids can be successful."

Area schools have a long way to go, according to data released last week. More than 200 schools in Pennsylvania and at least twice that number in New Jersey were flagged as needing improvement mostly because special-education students scored much lower than their peers.

The schools are in the suburbs as well as the cities, and in numerous instances, are otherwise top performers.

Federal and state regulations require all schools to have all students at 100 percent proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014.

Only a tiny fraction - 1 percent - can be exempted because of profound retardation.

Some relief may be in the offing.

"We are discussing now what relief we can provide for school districts within the current law," said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, in an interview in Philadelphia on Friday. The regulations, likely to be issued in two or three weeks, are expected to relax the requirements without retreating from the mandate that students with disabilities also be held to high standards.

In Pennsylvania, 14.6 percent of students with disabilities reached math proficiency on last spring's tests compared with 52.3 percent of all students, and 16.9 percent reached proficiency in reading compared with 60.3 percent of all students. In New Jersey, where results are not yet available, a similar gap existed last year.

But how can an eighth grader who reads at a fifth-grade level do well on eighth-grade reading and math tests?

How can a student with mental retardation succeed on a test that is meant to challenge a gifted student?

The issue is as complex as any facing educators.

There are "inherent difficulties" in testing children with learning disabilities, Vicki Phillips, Pennsylvania education secretary, acknowledged in an interview.

"We have to talk about this as a state and as a country," Phillips said. "On the other hand, I think Pennsylvania can do far more to improve the performance of special-needs students."

Parent advocates including D'Silva worry that any relaxation of the requirements might push special-education issues to the back burner. They want to keep the pressure on schools to adopt the latest effective instructional methods to students with learning disabilities.

"The emphasis for 25 years has been access - getting handicapped kids into local public schools and classrooms," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "Now, there's been this shift, and the kids are in the schools, but are they being well-educated?"

Children become entitled to extra services in public schools for impairments ranging from autism, Down syndrome, mental retardation, blindness, hearing loss - a spectrum that extends to learning disabilities related to reading.

"Half the kids in special education have dyslexia. They're legally disabled, and they need some help, but helping them is not an insurmountable task, and those kids can do well in school," Jennings said.

"But you also have a certain percentage who are cognitively disabled, and the federal law doesn't make any distinction. So when the teachers say it doesn't make sense - they're right, it doesn't."

The aim of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which came into full effect just this year, is to force states and local schools to address historic gaps in achievement by minority students, students learning English and students with disabilities.

But in numerous suburban schools in both states, overall math and reading scores exceeded state goals, but the schools got flagged anyway. Their special education students had scored below proficiency or missed the test.

"People with good common sense need to say, this isn't right," said Barry Galasso, superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District. "This could not have been the intended outcome."

Galasso's view is widely shared. Eighth-grade teachers Decker and White protested to lawmakers and the media on behalf of their school, Stetson Middle School in West Chester, where Decker teaches history and White teaches reading. Both have some special-education students in classes.

Overall, 77 percent of Stetson eighth graders scored at proficient levels in math on the 2003 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests compared with the current state goal of 35 percent. In reading, 86 percent were proficient compared with the state bar set at 45 percent. But just 15 percent of Stetson's special-education students achieved proficiency in math; only 35 percent did in reading.

Many students with special needs "are so far behind in their ability to read, it's cruel to make them take these tests," White said. "How many times do you tell a child, 'Gee, you're not as good as somebody else?' "

They may not learn to read at an 11th-grade level, Decker said, but they make gains and acquire life skills. As adults, "they will be out working every single day and be successful individuals and functioning members of the community," she said. "Did their schools fail them? No, they did not."

In Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, the state reported scores for 76 schools for reading and 73 for math. Schools with fewer than 40 students in the grade being tested are exempt from scrutiny. In New Jersey, the cutoff is 20 students per grade. If not for that exception, the numbers of schools caught up in this issue would be much greater.

N. Robert Laws, superintendent of Central Bucks School District, suggests that if the federal government is unwilling to change the requirements for special education students, then the state should "either redo the test or lower the cut scores" that define proficiency. Central Bucks got a state warning even though 11th graders in the two high schools scored at or near 70 percent proficiency in math and 83 percent in reading.

"Parents are scratching their heads," Laws said. "I've heard from the parents of special-needs kids and from the kids themselves - they feel personally responsible for the fact that our schools are on the warning list."

Laws' view is supported by Teri Gardner, a Central Bucks school board member who is chair of the special education parents steering committee. One of her three children, a recent graduate, received special education services while attending Central Bucks schools.

"We are spending an awful lot of money on testing when we should spending on smaller classes in the lower grades," Gardner said. "We should be giving our children reading skills, not testing skills."

— Connie Langland
Schools lagging in special education
Philadelphia Inquirer


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