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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Special Ed Testing Requirements: Unrealistic and Cruel

It's one thing to push students to do their best. It's another to set the bar so high that they can't make the grade.

Special-needs students should not have to meet the same academic standards as other children their age, said 84 percent of teachers polled for a national report on special education.

"You want to challenge students," said Dale Whitney, who teaches life skills to special-needs students at Glendale High School. "But at some point, it becomes unfair."

Federal law says that each state must bring nearly all students to a proficient level on state tests by 2014, an enormous hurdle for the 6.6 million children across the country who receive special-education services. That means high school students who are functioning far below grade level likely will have to take the same state tests as other students their age.

The majority of teachers polled for the Quality Counts 2004 report, released this month by Education Week, said that special-education students should not have to take the same tests as other children.

Parents agree.

Phyllis Smith, whose daughter Sarah is moderately mentally retarded, said: "Academically, Sarah's on a first- or second-grade level. She's made great progress, but she's leveled off."

Sarah, 21, is a student in Whitney's class. In addition to working on campus at a snack bar, she spends a few afternoons a week wiping down tables at a nearby McDonald's. She will graduate from Glendale High in May. Her sister, Emily, also will graduate that day, in the top 2 percent of her class.

The No Child Left Behind law "assumes every child has the same cognitive capabilities, except 1 percent of the disabled population," said Joanne Phillips, a deputy associate superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education. "It's an absurd expectation. It's like assuming we all have the same physical capability."

In Arizona, 10 to 12 percent of the K-12 population, about 107,000 students, have special needs, ranging from autism to mild mental retardation.

In the past, most special-needs students took Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, near the grade level that matched their skills. A high school student with third-grade reading ability, for example, might take the third- or fifth- grade AIMS. Last year, 21,938 students took the state test off their grade level.

But this year, many special-needs students must take AIMS on grade level. Some will receive special accommodations, such as permission to use a calculator or consent to have the test read out loud to them.

But it still makes Whitney wary.

She has had more than one high school student over the years who could not even pass the third-grade AIMS reading test. None of her current students could pass the AIMS math test at grade level, she said. Some are even unable to color in the answer bubbles that correspond to the questions.

Last month, Arizona managed to carve out a little wiggle room in special education. New regulations, published Dec. 9, say some out-of-level testing will be allowed for special-needs students, as will the AIMS A test, an alternate state test designed for school-age children functioning at a pre-kindergarten level.

But these alternatives will be only for students with "significant cognitive disabilities," a category that the state is still trying to define, Phillips said.

Because her education is nearly over, Sarah won't have to take AIMS this year. And it's a good thing, her mother said.

"There is no way Sarah would be able to take a grade-level test," Phyllis said. "With children like Sarah, we still push them to be the best they can be. But to ask them to be something they can't is unrealistic and cruel."

5 Tips for Parents of Children in Special Education

1. Contact parent organizations. Finding other parents whose children have special needs makes you feel more confident. Parent groups also offer unbiased advice.

2. Trust your instincts. Speak up if something doesn't feel right. Some children are falsely labeled with a learning disability. Other times, parents have to struggle to get schools to recognize their child's disability.

3. Stay on top of things. Go to school and talk with your child's teachers regularly.

4. Document everything. Keep correspondence, notes from meetings, anything that relates to your child's education.

5. Start with a positive approach. Use the "three strikes and you're out" rule with administrators, teachers or assistants who work with your child. Try to work out problems informally. If that doesn't work, move up the chain of command.

Source: Action Alliance for Children in California; www.4children.org

By the numbers

Under federal orders to test every student with a disability, states are pondering how to do so fairly and accurately. Arizona is:

One of 24 states that allow students with disabilities to receive a standard diploma if they have not met regular graduation requirements.

One of 15 states that require special-education teachers to have either a degree in special education or a minimum amount of coursework in the field, as well as a passing score on a special-education exam.

One of 18 states in which special-education funding is weighted by pupil; in Arizona, tiered dollar amounts are given to students based on the level of disability.

Source: Education Week

— Maggie Galehouse: maggie.galehouse@arizonarepublic.com
Special-needs youths face big AIMS hurdle
Arizona Republic


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