Educators say NCLB standards don't help special-needs students
By Mark Sommerhauser
Judging by how they look, act and talk, the middle-school students in Debbie Laughlin's study-skills class are, like, totally typical.
“She took my seat at lunch,” says one eighth-grade girl, wrinkling her nose at a recent cafeteria spat. “She's so totally jealous.”
Laughlin, a special education teacher at Fulton Middle School, hears that sort of catty banter everyday.
“Welcome to eighth grade,” Laughlin chuckles wryly.
Federal standardized-testing guidelines don't recognize the pupils in this classroom as being any different than the others. And while they are run-of-the-mill middle-schoolers in most ways, Laughlin and other Fulton educators also point to a key distinction.
The students in Laughlin's classes all have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, written to address their specific needs. They range from problems like Attention Deficit Disorder to more serious disabilities like autism or mental retardation.
For example, Laughlin spent part of her day on Monday writing an IEP for an eighth grader who reads at a first-grade level. Laughlin said the boy can comprehend material when he hears it, but struggles to process it visually.
“We make modifications all year to accomodate him,” Laughlin said. “But when the MAP test comes, we can't read it to him.”
It's a gut-wrenching dilemna for classroom educators. What's more, it wrecks Fulton Public Schools' attempt to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, the ultimate litmus test imposed on local districts by No Child Left Behind standards.
To make AYP, districts must qualify a percentage of students as “proficient” on the MAP's communication arts and math sections.
Depending on the district, they also must qualify the same percentage in several specific subcategories, such as African-American students or those receiving free or reduced lunches.
FPS met the NCLB standards for 2006 in eight of its 10 required categories, falling short only in the two covering students with IEPs.
FPS assistant superintendent Suzanne Hull calls it “absurd” that the standards require the same percentage of IEP students to test “proficient” as the rest of the student population.
“It's just unfair to hold them to the same standards as regular-ed kids,” Hull said.
Few other area districts met the standards, which - along with other NCLB guidelines - are slated to become tougher each year to bring all districts to 100-percent proficiency by 2014.
Of the 17 districts in Callaway, Boone, Audrain and Cole counties, only Mexico, South Callaway and Southern Boone met both the IEP guidelines in 2006.
Hull vowed that the results will prompt FPS to “take a good, hard look at those subgroups and make sure we're meeting the needs of all our kids.”
But Laughlin noted that students aren't targeted for IEPs unless they are struggling to keep pace in a regular-ed classroom.
“If we correctly identify the kids with IEPs, then they won't make AYP,” Laughlin said.
NCLB does provide an alternate test - the MAP-A - for special-needs students. But that test is targeted at “severely disabled” students, and Laughlin said the small percent who are eligible require constant supervised care.
In contrast, most special-needs students have functional life skills, Laughlin said, but struggle with subjects like algebra or reading.
“They are getting the education they need to be successful in life,” Laughlin said. “That's not always going to be reading at their grade level.”
Teachers are particularly exasperated at the process of trying to prep struggling students on unfamiliar concepts prior to the test.
“It's so frustrating. Some of these things, these kids have never seen before,” Laughlin said. “We have to be as serious about it as the rest of the student population. But a lot of times we could be working on other goals.”
Laughlin acknowledges that IEP students will not always be given special treatment following their academic careers.
“In life, they're going to be held accountable,” Laughlin said. “But it's not fair to hold them to the same standards, or hold the district back because of it.”
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES