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State testing gets tougher: Students will take PACT at grade level despite disabilities

By Lisa Michals

New testing requirements this year will force more than 3,500 special education students - many with low IQs - to take higher level exams than in the past.

Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests get under way today, and for the first time most special education students will be required to take the same tests as their non-special education schoolmates.

In the past, special education students could take tests from lower grade levels if educators determined the students' abilities would be better measured that way.

But the U.S. Department of Education says the federal No Child Left Behind law doesn't allow off-grade-level testing, said Teri Siskind, S.C. Department of Education deputy superintendent for curriculum services and assessment.

The change is intended to ensure teachers and students strive for the highest goals, state education officials said.

Lexington 2 special education coordinator Lisa Harmon said there's no question her teachers strive for the highest standards.

But just as special education students receive extra instruction because of their highly individual needs, they might be measured best through equally individualized assessments, educators said.

"I think the need to do it individually is important because not all students should have the same goal," Harmon said.

Many fear the students will face unnecessary stress while taking exams they are not academically prepared to tackle.

"You've got two competing concepts," said Dave Zoellner, an attorney with the S.C. group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc. "Every kid in special ed ought to be treated as much like any other kid. [But] obviously there are a lot of parents who say, 'My kids are going to be so frustrated.'"

South Carolina requires public school students in third through eighth grades to take PACT as part of the state's compliance with No Child Left Behind, which seeks to hold schools accountable for student success partly by requiring standardized testing and school report cards.

Suzanne Swaffield of the S.C. Department of Education and others said they are less concerned about the effect of special education students' test scores on school ratings.

It's the effect on students that primarily concerns many educators.

"The most frustrating thing about them having to take the on-grade-level PACT is the frustration the students feel when they see a test that they are not able to successfully complete," said Vicki Traufler, principal of Lexington 2's Wood Elementary School.

At Traufler's Wood Elementary, though, special education students test performance did played a role in a recent downgrade of the schools report card rating. The performance of less than 10 special education students resulted in the lower rating for the school, Traufler said.

Yet Traufler said parents and teachers have been supportive and understanding.

"We need to provide the programs and the teachers to these students that need that extra assistance," she said.

Another test for those students who now must take PACT tests on their grade level will be available in the future, but it is unclear when.

"That is the flexibility that is intended to address the concern about students who, with the best instruction, are still not able to achieve grade level," said Swaffield of the education department.

Not all special education students will be required to take on-grade-level PACT. As in the past:

A limited number of students with severe disabilities still will be allowed to take an alternative assessment, Siskind said.

Some students still will be allowed to take tests with what the government calls accommodations. Students might be allowed to take the test while surrounded by only a few student, S.C. officials said.

— Lisa Michals



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