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WASL rules vex special ed parents

With regards state testing, parents shouldn't worry about protecting the school. The school should be standing up for students.

By Isolde Raftery

Every day, it seems, something changes in the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

It's tough enough to figure out for students in regular education ("Does the test count for our grade?" is a common refrain for high school students), let alone for parents whose children are in special education.

"The regulations change day by day," parent Martha Maier said. "You've got to educate yourself."

Maier's eighth-grade son, Jeff, is in special education at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Vancouver. He is one of many students statewide who must take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, despite his disability.

Initially, Jeff was supposed to take the third-grade-level test, but, Maier said, "something at the national level changed, so he had to take the test (at grade level)."

Maier left the choice to Jeff.

"We know the school gets a zero score, and we like the school and don't want to penalize them, but it's also pretty demoralizing to get a test score back and be a failure," she said.

Maier didn't know that opting out of the exam was an option until she checked out a Web site called Mothers Against WASL.

No Child Left Behind allows special education students - but no more than 10 percent of a district's enrollment - to forgo state testing and present a portfolio instead.

At the special education PTA meeting Wednesday night, Vancouver Deputy Superintendent Steven Webb sympathized with parents who said their students are particularly anxious around test time.

"It's an arbitrary calculation," Webb said. "What happens if you're number 11?"

About 12.2 percent of Washington students qualify for special education, meaning some, like Jeff, must take the WASL.

Washington is working to improve the testing options for students in special education, said Molly O'Connell at the state schools office in Olympia.

It's hard to get all the information to school districts, let alone parents, O'Connell said. That's because the state is still phasing in the federal law, which keeps changing.

Trying to understand what changes are happening and how that affects the students isn't easy, said social worker and parent Jo Ann Richardson.

"Parents who aren't as system-savvy, that's where the problem starts," Richardson said.

Richardson's son attends Clark College. He reads constantly and writes brilliantly, she said. But when it comes to math, forget it. He can't pass algebra.

That wasn't always the case, though. Learning how to read was a struggle, and took private tutoring.

"There's a lot of ignorance," she said. "Educators and parents don't know about a lot of stuff that is out there."

Students in special education have four WASL options:

- Take the WASL as it is.

- Take the WASL at their grade level, as defined by their individual education plan.

- Take a modified WASL.

- Do not take the WASL and submit a portfolio of work that demonstrates improvement in certain areas.

— Isolde Raftery


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