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Law is Frustrating for Special Ed

Ohanian Comment: Here's the crux of the argument, voiced by teacher featured in this article: "There is no way some of these kids can meet the testing standards. If they could, they wouldn't be with us in the first place." Parents and teachers fought for years for access to the mainstream. Now do they want the same standards to apply for all? The financial implications to school districts are enormous.

EAGLE POINT, Ore. The kids in Michelle Harper's special-education classroom here have their own small victories, every day a temper tantrum stifled, computer time earned, two words rhymed.

But when it comes time to take the standardized tests that the federal government uses to measure public schools, so many of Harper's students at White Mountain Middle School tune out, picking answers at random, not realizing the potentially severe consequences for their school.

Across the country this year, thousands of schools were deemed "failing" because of the testing performance of special-education students, under a new federal education law backed by the Bush administration.

The results have provoked alternate feelings of fury, helplessness and amusement for teachers like Harper, who say that because of the biological nature of some of their students' disabilities, there is no realistic way to ever meet the expectations of the new law, which mandates that 99 percent of all children must be performing at or above grade level by 2014.

Eventually, if schools fail to meet those targets, they run the risk of being taken over by the state or private companies; teachers could lose their jobs.

"These children are going to plateau at a certain level that is the nature of a disability," Harper said. "These kids are not going to grow out of it, not going to grow up and be OK. It's sad, but that is the way it is."

Special education has been a battleground for years. Parents of special-education students fought long and hard for their children to be included in mainstream classrooms, and for the funds to provide them with expensive extra help. Federal government funding for special education has risen under President Bush but is still below long-promised levels.

Now the new law, dubbed No Child Left Behind, has turned even more attention to special education, because of the resulting consequences for all segments of public school.

The federal law mandates that schools bring all groups of students up to grade level on reading and math standardized tests, including special-education students and those who don't speak English. If even one of those groups fails to meet progress targets for two years in a row, an entire school can be listed as "needing improvement," and face a spiraling list of sanctions.

'Ludicrous' test standard

In South Carolina, more than three-fourths of schools were listed as "needing improvement." Sandra Lindsay, the state's deputy education secretary, said special education was the single most common denominator.

And in Nashville, Tenn., schools director Pedro Garcia called it "ludicrous, to give a (special-ed) student a test that they cannot read or understand, much less know the answer."

In Oregon alone, 202 schools reported that their special-education students had failed to make the desired amount of progress in reading; 181 said that was true for math.

The federal government is defending the special-education portion of the law, although officials said some changes are in the works that would give breathing room to the most seriously disabled children and their teachers.

The Education Department does not, however, want to let all special-education students and their teachers off the hook, said Ronald Tomalis, the U.S. acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

"There have been low expectations for some of these children all along," Tomalis said. "And that's not because of mental abilities, but because of poor instruction received in the early grades. We need to challenge schools that these children can achieve. Sure, they will need an intensive program, but they can be brought up to grade level."

For more seriously disabled children, Tomalis said, the proposed change to the law would let 1 percent of all children in a school district skip the grade-level tests, and instead take an alternative assessment test, tailored to their own abilities. If they score well on that alternative, that can be counted in their school's favor.

"We don't expect these children to take a seventh-grade-level math test if they are having difficulties moving a block from one side of the table to the other," Tomalis said.

Complicated situation

Oregon mother Cynthia Payne, whose son is severely mentally retarded and has been in special education all his life, said she sees a need for change in the law.

"In my hopes and dreams, I would love him to participate, to be a normal kid, but he is not," she said. "And to penalize the school because he is not capable of that is insane."

Bill Fuesahrens, the district's superintendent in Medford, said some special-education students can, should and will be brought to grade level, but that the situation is more complicated for students like the ones Harper teaches, who are born with learning disabilities.

In Harper's classroom, she interrupts her math lessons constantly, to ask her sixth- and seventh-graders not to kneel on the floor, to tell them that no, it's not time to go home yet, to listen patiently to stories that don't involve math.

She teaches students with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, Tourette's syndrome, vision and hearing deficiencies and brain injuries.

It can take about 15 minutes for her to wade through four or five math problems her 12- and 13-year-olds are struggling to master fractions, not the pre-algebra that occupies most seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school.

Harper said she measures her students' progress not by their performance on standardized tests but by how they are doing on individualized education plans.

For so many of her students, the realistic goal is not to work at grade level but simply to gain as much self-sufficiency as possible, she said.

"There is no way some of these kids can meet the testing standards," she said. "If they could, they wouldn't be with us in the first place."

— Julia Silverman
Law is frustrating for special ed
Seattle Times


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