NCLB Change In Rules for Special Ed Don't Address the Larger Problem
New federal rules for testing special education students will go into effect next week, but they won't address one of the biggest complaints from school officials: testing the majority of special education students as other students at the same grade level.
U.S. Department of Education regulations for the No Child Left Behind Act basically mirror the practice already in effect in Pennsylvania.
They allow alternative tests to be given to students with "significant cognitive disabilities," a term that will be defined by each state. Those students are the most severely disabled in special education.
Nationwide, about 9 percent of all students are enrolled in special education, said Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the federal education department.
The new federal rule permits up to 1 percent of all students to be eligible for an alternative test. States and school districts can appeal to the federal government for a greater number of students to be eligible if they can demonstrate they have more students in that category.
Pennsylvania already has a special test for the most severely disabled.
Most students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests known as the PSSA, but the severely disabled take the Pennsylvania Alternative System of Assessment tests, called PASA.
Last spring, 4,550 students in grades five, eight and 11 took the PASA while hundreds of thousands took the PSSA.
The main complaint from school officials has been how the remainder of special education students are tested.
Those students must now take the same test as others at the grade level appropriate to their age. So, if a mentally retarded eighth-grader is reading at the second-grade level, he still must take the eighth-grade PSSA.
Bradshaw said it would take new federal legislation to change the assessment of special education students.
Kaye Cupples, head of special education for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said about 800 students -- about 1.6 percent of the student body -- have significant disabilities and take the PASA test. This includes students at the special schools, Pioneer and Conroy, as well as those in life skills classes.
The rest of the district's 7,000 special education students take the PSSA.
Cupples said the current system for some special ed students who take the PSSA "really doesn't measure the real progress many of our kids are making, transition from school to adult life, communication skills, kids with autism making great strides in social and communication skills, kids with behavior or problems making wonderful gains."
He said he thinks it's "inappropriate" to test at the eighth-grade level an eighth-grader who is mentally retarded and reads at a second-grade level.
On the other hand, he said, some learning disabled children may not be doing as well as they should and could be.
"There's a lot more that needs to be looked at and researched," he said.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools must show they are making adequate yearly progress on state tests in math and reading for students overall as well as for students in subgroups -- including special education -- if there are at least 40 such students tested.
If enough students don't meet the standard, then the school is flagged for a warning list or school improvement, which means the school then must offer transfers to a higher performing school in the district.
Most of the schools in Pennsylvania that have special education students were cited for low performance of that group.
State Education Secretary Vicki Phillips said Pennsylvania hasn't done as well as some other states in meeting high expectations for special education students, including failing to provide enough support for early childhood education.
Phillips said the special education issue is a "double-edge for everyone. There's no doubt this is the piece that arouses the strongest feelings. Districts feel that the demands of NCLB are not the most reasonable for our special needs population. We're joined by a lot of states and districts feeling that way."
She said state officials are studying that and other concerns about No Child Left Behind and in the coming months expect to make suggestions to the federal government.
"What I want to keep in balance in this state is we believe the special education provision may need to change. We also believe that we have much room to make progress in Pennsylvania with that population. We don't want to lose the fact every kid counts," she said.
Concern over new federal rules governing special ed
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